Thursday, January 24, 2008

Local Names for Birds, Part One

One day back in June 1984, my Uncle Dallas guided me through some of the farm lands where he was born near Woolwine in Patrick County, Virginia. I was participating in the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas.

We both heard a Pileated Woodpecker cackling among some tulip poplars up ridge from us. He said, "that's an Indian Hen." My father had always used the name Wood Hen.

My Uncle and I searched some bottom land soggy places for a little while. He said he had seen baby snipe here many years earlier. I knew which species he was referring to....American Woodcock. It is also the species of much local lore and speculation in Franklin County and Patrick County, the most famous I guess...the snipe hunt.

A snipe hunt is a prank to fool a person who knows nothing about snipe or woodcock. As folks have described it to me:

you take the person out into the woods
you give 'em a sack to catch the snipe
you tell the person that you will drive the snipe to 'em
you go home and enjoy a coffee lace or other beverage
the person never gets a snipe in the bag
the person is left "holding the bag"

I know somebody that played that trick on his fiancee. She married the guy anyway. They're still married, now almost 60 years.

Below is a short list of a few species with field guide common name and the local vernacular. There are a couple of sad notions in my head as I write this blog: (1) the saddest: most of the folks who have shared these names are now quite elderly, or have died in recent years, taking these local names and much more with them so to speak, and (2) people who still use the local names, often apologize for using them, saying something like "I don't know what the book name is" or "I only know this name, not the book name."

My Uncle Dallas told me also that he could tell where folks were from just by their accent. Yeah, we can still do that. But what he meant was simply this: He knew a certain person was from Meadows of Dan by their Meadows of Dan accent, since he was from Woolwine...and the number of miles ain't very far between the two places. Transport, radio, TV etc has definitely reduced the number of our accents...but I digress, here's a first short list:

These are all local names I have heard people use in the New River Valley or in Franklin, or Patrick Counties.

Local name, Common name in field guides:

  • Keel, Bufflehead
  • Mud Duck, Pied-billed Grebe
  • Blue Crane, Great Blue Heron
  • Shytepoke, Green Heron
  • Snipe, American Woodcock
  • Yellow Hammer, Northern Flicker
  • Indian Hen, Pileated Woodpecker
  • Wood Hen, Pileated Woodpecker
  • Baldpate, American Wigeon

The name Baldpate of course is in some of the older bird field guides, so one hunter may have been repeating a book name.

I'll post a few more local bird names with another entry soon, and then one about local names for insects.

Clyde Kessler

1 comment:

Scott Jackson-Ricketts said...

Clyde, this from what I read last night, in "Before the Dawn", by Nicholas Wade.

"Linguists call a large area dominated by a single language a spread zone. An area parceled into many small regions, each of which has its own language, is a mosaic zone."

"...in England, up until the late 1970s, speakers could be located by their accent to an area as small as 35 miles in diameter."

"Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and to indentify strangers the moment they opened their mouths."

Scott