08 May 2013

Distinctive Common Names for Birds of Historic Canada

When Ernest E.T. Seton compiled a synopsis for birds of Western Manitoba, there were many interesting facts of distribution and occurrence. He'd visited many of the places in the region, gathered information on bird occurrence dating back, most prevalently to 1880. Dates of seasonal arrival and departure were considerations derived from Carberry, and were "approximations," he indicated. Seton graduated from the Ontario College of Arts in 1879, and then lived in backwoods and prairie areas of Canada.

His two-part article issued in two issues of the The Auk in April and July 1886, followed the most recent American Ornithologists' Union list of acceptable nomenclature. Mr. Seton was obviously attentive to what was occurring in association with the explosive reportage associated with birds, as indicated by various journals, newspapers, and other miscellaneous publications. Contributions from several other prominent bird enthusiasts familiar with the region, as well as previous reports pertinent to the region, were also considered and essential to the article. More than 300 distinct records are available from this source of bird history.

Especially interesting are a few unique common names used in the region. These are some of the more significant highlights for the "local English names" which Seton included. They are given in the order as originally presented.

Double-crested Cormorant: crow duck
In 1861 and 1881, crow duck was used in reference to the American Coot, as reported from the District of Columbia (the early instance) and Illinois (the latter instance).
Whooping Crane: flying sheep
This is the only known reference for use of this common name. Perhaps the name was derived from this crane being large and white, two traits which can also be applied to sheep.
Bartramian Sandpiper: prairie plover, quaily
The second name is unique to this report, based upon a comparison to thousands of pre-1885 records of occurrence for this, and any other bird species.
Canada Jay. Whiskey-Jack. Wis-ka-tjan
The latter term is a "corruption of the Indian (Cree?) Wis-ka-tjan," Seton indicated. "This last name should not be lost sight of" he noted, indicating how it had special significance. This is another example of a unique name, as even among several known instances of tribal language which refers to this species, there is nothing similar.
In 1743 the Cree did refer to this garrulous bird as the "wap pis ka John" or "wap pa whicker John" based upon observations and documentation done by James Isham at Hudsons Bay.
Brewer's Blackbird: satin bird
Another example of a distinct local name.
Lark Bunting: buffalo bird
In 1849, this common name was used in reference to the Brown-headed Cowbird, when they were seen at Camp Mary, near the trail crossing over Grand Nemaha River, Gage County, Nebraska during a military expedition. On August 13, 1875, the same appelation was associated with a "type of jay" as noted in the vicinity of Camp Crook, Dakota Territory.
Yellow Warbler: spider bird
It is not apparent why the Canadians would refer to this species in this manner. The term is not obvious among other historic bird accounts.

In addition to the several distinctive common names, there were others indicated which were regularly used in the historic bird literature. A summary of his additional mentions, refresh any perspective of local terminology. Other typical common names -- as regularly used in many different historic reports about birds -- and included by Seton were:

  • Pied-billed Grebe: dabchick
  • Frankin's Gull: rosy gull
  • American Merganser: sheldrake
  • Red-breasted Merganser: fish duck
  • American Scaup Duck: big bluebill
  • Lesser Scaup Duck: little blue-bill
  • Ring-necked Duck: marsh blue-bill
  • Knot: robin snipe
  • Semipalmated Plover: ring plover
  • Pileated Woodpecker: cock-of-the-woods
  • Flicker: highholder
  • Western Vesper Sparrow: baywing
  • Bank Swallow: sand martin. This common name, is now the proper name as designated by the International Ornithological Committee, in their most recent taxonomy for birds of the world.

The Searchable Ornithological Research Archive has both issues of The Auk, wherein this article was published, available in their entirety for further consideration.