How the mallard got its name

  • Article by: JIM WILLIAMS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2013 - 4:05 PM

Birds’ common names sometimes have uncommon origins.

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Mallard mating habits ruffle some feathers, and led to their “street” name.

Photo: Jim Williams • Special to the Star Tribune,

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The mallard got its name because of misunderstood behavior.

Birds generally have at least two names: a scientific name, a widely accepted common name and often a folk or regional name. The scientific name is always the same, avoiding confusion, allowing everyone to be on the same page when needed.

The mallard, this duck is scientifically known as Anus platyrhynchos. The word mallard evolved from Latin, Old French, Middle English and German. I know this because Ernest A. Choate wrote an interesting, useful and amusing book about bird names: “The Dictionary of American Bird Names.”

When reduced to source, the a-r-d at the end of mallard describes a drunkard, a dullard and a sluggard.

If you have ever watched the ultimate moment in mallard mating, it’s easy to see why Choate wrote this about mallards: the male “exemplifies in his relations with the female a singular concentration on physical union alone. The female, after she is snatched baldheaded, gets eggs to hatch, ducklings to raise, and her drake’s name.” The sluggard disappears.

Mallard mating does look like assault, and feathers are lost as the drake grabs the female’s head in his attempt to subdue her. But, hey, while chased before the event, she doesn’t fly away.

Scientifically speaking, Anus is Latin for duck. Platyrynchos comes from platus, a Greek word for broad, and rhynchos, a Latin word for bill. So we have a duck with a broad bill — that behaves roughly with females.

(Anus, by the way, appears in many scientific names for ducks because all are of the duck family. The second word in that scientific label, always lowercase, is the individual name.)

Many scientific names were assigned long ago by a Swede named Carl Linnaeus. He was a botanist, physician and zoologist. His work created the foundation for our system of scientific naming, the two-part name. The system is used across the spectrum of living things.

Common names can be created and assigned by almost anyone. Historically, the job often fell to the person first describing the bird for the scientific community. Appearance or behavior could determine the name. Or the bird was named to honor someone.

The house wren scientifically is Troglodytes aedon. A troglodyte is a cave dweller (think cavities: house wrens nest in tree holes and nest boxes). Aëdon is the name of a tragic Greek mythological heroine who mistakenly killed her own son. In pity, Zeus changed her into a nightingale. House wrens, like nightingales, sing beautifully. That’s a cool name.

Baird’s sparrow was named for Spencer F. Baird. He was the first U.S. Fish Commissioner and organizer of the zoological work for Pacific Railroad surveys. His survey work probably took him into Baird’s sparrow breeding territory.

Harris’s sparrow was named by painter John James Audubon for a best friend, Edward Harris. Henslow’s sparrow was named by Audubon to honor an Englishman. John S. Henslow helped Audubon sell prints of his paintings. Way to go, John!

No one, as far as I can tell, has ever honored Linnaeus with a bird name.

 

Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.

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