In the Yard

Rhonda Hayes is a garden writer, photographer and blogger. She also volunteers as a Hennepin County Master Gardener. Rhonda chronicles her gardening adventures and advice at her award-winning blog, The Garden Buzz. She is a frequent contributor to Northern Gardener magazine and the Star Tribune Home + Garden section. At Your Voices, she writes about life around the city lakes, occasionally veering off the garden path with essays on the silly and serious issues of the day.

Beautiful Birds with Unfortunate Names

Posted by: Rhonda Hayes Updated: November 1, 2012 - 10:20 PM

 Walking around Lake Calhoun, (ok, well, not technically around it, just along one side so that I eventually end up at Rustica bakery for a croissant) it struck me how unfortunate it is that two of the state's most lovely water birds are called by such un-lovely names. 

Plying the icy steel-blue waters of the lake in autumn, you still see a few loons left before the choppy surface freezes and chases them away. Their strong silhouettes appear and disappear as they feed. Apparently the name loon comes from an ancient term for diver, as they are also known as Great Northern Divers.

Unlike other birds their bones aren't hollow, enabling them to dive to great depths. In addition, those red eyes help them to see underwater. But most endearing is the sight of them sailing along with their babies on their backs.

Notable not only for the diving, their calls are unique and distinctive. With a tremolo, a wail, a hoot and a yodel in their vocal vocabulary, it's the maniacal laugh of the tremolo that might earn them the saying, "crazy like a loon". 

Others not versed in loon behavior might think the name derives from lunacy or lunatic, but that has more to do with being moonstruck. And who's not heard of crazy like a bat, fox, bedbug, insert your own choice here?

That doesn't stop many Minnesotans from co-opting the catchy phrase loon-acy for all manner of sporting and social events. 

And then there are the coots. They gather up in flocks come winter, bobbing along the cold whitecaps in tidy little groups. They are an unassuming but fashionable soft slate shade with a light-colored bill. 

Their name derives from cote, the old English word for a nesting area for pigeons, doves, etc. Yet all you can picture is a cantankerous "old coot", because rarely does the word coot appear without the old. And do you ever think, if you do, of the cute little duck-like bird without a quick mental image of said "unpleasant senior male"?

Occasionally people find their name so unsuitable they change it, I'd love to change mine. I often wish I'd insisted on everyone calling me Roon or Roonie like my husband does. It's more friendly and cheerful, more era-neutral. I was named after the old B-movie star, Rhonda Fleming. That name sticks you solidly in the 1950's category with no chance of escape. People have resurrected Ruby, Louise and even Maxine, but you rarely hear of a baby Rhonda.

I should have jumped on the name change thing before one of my cousins beat me to it, deciding she didn't like hers either, switching to a moniker more like that of a romance novelist. But did it really change how I see her? 

Just as well the loons and coots are oblivious to how we label them. 

 

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