WHAT'S A BUZZARD? DEPENDS ON WHERE YOU'RE FROM

   A recent book on raptor identification calls the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) “a small woodland buzzard.” The red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) is described as “a long-legged woodland buzzard,” while Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is characterized as “a large western open country buzzard.” Yet the section on the three North American accipiters (sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and Northern goshawk) never uses the word. Nor is the word “buzzard” used in the book’s descriptions of the turkey vulture and the black vulture, even though many people refer to both species as buzzards. The volume quoted from here, A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors by Brian K. Wheeler and William S. Clark, will serve as an example of how raptor books of the last few decades have become precise in their terminology.

   Old common names tended to describe a bird’s behavior as humans viewed it, or were based on one identifying characteristic. They didn’t necessarily reflect taxonomic relationships. Thus the peregrine falcon was formerly known as the duck hawk, the merlin was the pigeon hawk and the American kestrel was (and to some people still is) the sparrowhawk. Yet all three species are true falcons of the genus Falco and deserve to be called falcons. The American kestrel is closely related to several Old World kestrel species, and its newer name reflects these relationships. Furthermore, to call the American kestrel “sparrowhawk” is confusing as well as inaccurate. The Old World is home to another raptor called “sparrowhawk.” But this bird (Accipiter nisus) is an accipiter, a long-legged woodland hawk that resembles our sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks and indeed is closely related to them. It has no relationship to the American kestrel, which is a true falcon.

   It’s easy to see from all of this why the binomial system of classification of living things was devised by a man known as Linnaeus in the 18th century. A binomial is a name made up of two words. Under the Linnaean system, every plant and animal is given a genus and a species name that is set off by italics or underlining. The genus name (for example, Buteo or Accipiter or Falco) is always uppercased (capitalized). The plural form of genus is genera. A given genus may contain several organisms that are grouped together because they share many characteristics and so are considered to be closely related. Thus the six American falcons in the genus Falco are all close relatives (cousins, if you like).

   The species name follows the genus name. It is lowercased (not capitalized) and describes one specific organism. Falco sparverius is the binomial devised for the American kestrel, and when that name is used the reader knows exactly what bird is being referred to in a text. A person reading about a “sparrowhawk,” with no binomial for guidance, would have to depend upon context to determine whether the bird in question was a New World falcon or an Old World accipiter.

   The binomial name system relies chiefly on dead languages like Latin and classical Greek to form words. These languages are stable, meaning that they don’t change and evolve as living languages do. (To see English changing before your very eyes, pick up a weekly newsmagazine like Time or Newsweek and read any article about the Internet or computers and related technology. Count the number of words that didn’t exist five years ago or one year ago. Or, for the older readers, count the number of terms that are unfamiliar to you.) Binomials are the same whether your native language is English, Russian, Spanish, French or German. Binomials can be enlighteningly descriptive if you take the time to decipher their meaning. An excellent source for this purpose is The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John Terres. At each species entry the binomial is given with both pronunciation and meaning.

   The binomials of various birds will help us work out what Wheeler and Clark mean when they use the word “buzzard” in A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors. As a matter of fact they tell us on page 42: “The buzzards of the genus Buteo and closely related genera are all characterized by robust bodies, long, broad wings, and short to long tails.” To Wheeler and Clark a buzzard is a hawk of the genus Buteo. The word “buteo” itself, lowercased and not set off by italics or underlining, has been used since the 1940s to mean exactly the same thing.

   This is a precise, restricted use of “buzzard,” and one endorsed by the American Ornithologists’ Union, which oversees avian nomenclature in this country. This recent specificity of terms is a welcome change from the old American practice of calling virtually any raptor that wasn’t an owl, eagle or vulture a “hawk.” Consider: Fish hawk, marsh hawk, mosquito hawk, Cooper’s hawk, Harris’ hawk, duck hawk and rough-legged hawk are all former or current raptor common names for totally unrelated birds. The fish hawk is the osprey; the marsh hawk is a harrier; the mosquito hawk is a kite; Cooper’s hawk is an accipiter; Harris’ hawk is a buteonine, a hawk closely related to buteos but put in a different genus; the duck hawk is a falcon; and the rough-legged hawk is a buteo!

   If Americans have been sloppy in some of their naming techniques, the British have shown a refreshing precision in their common names for raptors. Precision in raptor terminology dates back to medieval times in England, when falconry was a popular aristocratic sport. In those days, a “falcon” was exactly what we would call a falcon today – a member of the genus Falco, a bird with dark eyes, blade-shaped wings and a swift aerial style. “Hawk” was applied to what we would now call the accipiters – bird hunters like the goshawk. A “buzzard” was a wide-winged raptor, of the sort we would now call a buteo. The word “buzzard” comes from the French word busard meaning “hawk.” Now, falconry’s popularity in England dates back to the Norman Conquest, and the Normans spoke French, which they imposed on their conquered country. So many of the English falconry terms still in use today are French-based. By the 1400s falconers in England were applying the word “buzzard” to England’s one resident buteo (Buteo buteo), which to this day is called the common buzzard or, simply, buzzard on both sides of the pond. This dark brown hawk, smaller and less powerful than the American red-tailed hawk (although closely related), hunts mostly small rodents and often turns scavenger. Because of this Old World buteo, our ten species of North American buteos, which are all close relatives of this bird, are properly called “buzzards.” In practice, however, American authors use standardized common names set down by the American Ornithologists’ Union. So in the above-mentioned A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors Wheeler and Clark characterize the short-tailed hawk (Buteo brachyurus) as “a small aerial buzzard that occurs in Florida.” The common name, however, is always styled “short-tailed hawk” by American authors, never “short-tailed buzzard.” The common names of all ten buteo species described in the book are consistent in using “hawk,” not “buzzard.”

   In England the situation is different. The British, with their long, falconry-influenced tradition of applying the word “buzzard” only to buteos, do use it in common names. Thus, in her book Birds of Prey, British falconer Emma Ford, who has worked with many North American raptor species, lists our red-tailed and ferruginous hawks under her “buzzards” heading. Furthermore, she gives these two species’ common names as “red-tailed buzzard” and “ferruginous buzzard.” She includes under the heading “hawks” only the species we would classify as accipiters: The Old World sparrowhawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and goshawk.

   So how did the turkey vulture and the black vulture end up getting called “buzzard?” Well, many New World animals got stuck with inappropriate monikers because something about them reminded early settlers of Old World species with a similar characteristic. That’s why British colonists called the American kestrel (a falcon) the “sparrowhawk.” The slate-blue upperparts of the male American kestrel echoed the coloration of the male Old World sparrowhawk (an accipiter totally unrelated to the American kestrel).

   This habit of giving a New World species an Old World name because the pair happen to share an easily visible characteristic is perhaps epitomized by the case of the North American wapiti (Cervus canadensis). European settlers called this very large member of the deer family an “elk,” which was their word for the Old World version of what we call a “moose.” Now, the wapiti, which is actually a close relative of the European red deer, is not exactly a moose twin. True, both animals are big and have hooves and (in the males) antlers, but there the real similarities would seem to end. Ah, but speaking of ends, the two animals do have one other shared characteristic – a white rump patch. Which observers couldn’t miss, since most of their views of wapiti or moose would be of the animals’ hind end as they fled. Native Americans too were familiar with the wapiti’s white rump patch. The word wapiti is Algonquian Indian for “white” or “whitish.”

   So here we see twin linguistic phenomena with a long history: The tradition of naming an animal for one characteristic and then transferring the name to another, unrelated animal because it seems to have the same characteristic. And that explains why turkey vultures and black vultures got called “buzzards.” Both vultures are dark, like the Old World buzzard (which, as we have seen, is a hawk of the genus Buteo, related to North American buteos like the red-tailed hawk), and both vultures soar with splayed wingtips, again like the Old World buzzard. Both vultures are scavengers, which the Old World buzzard on occasion is. Again following standardized American Ornithologists’ Union practice, American writers don’t use the common names “turkey buzzard” or “black buzzard,” because they’re confusing. These two names are firmly embedded in oral usage, however, and are frequently heard, even if they’re not used in technical writing.

   All of which brings us to a large inlet of the Atlantic Ocean called Buzzards Bay. This 30-mile-long body of water pushes deeply into southeastern Massachusetts, narrowing Cape Cod’s connection with the rest of the state. This area was settled in the 1600s by English colonists, and the question is: For what bird was the bay named? Not for a vulture, for neither the turkey vulture nor the black vulture was a resident of Massachusetts then. Was the eponymous bird a buteo such as the red-tailed hawk or the broad-winged hawk? Possibly the early settlers saw concentrations of broad-winged hawks near the coast during migration. However, I’m far more inclined to suspect that what the colonists were seeing was flocks of gulls, which still breed in colonies along the New England coast. Like the Old World buzzard, gulls spend a great deal of time soaring, and the immatures of several species found in Massachusetts are dark. Or maybe the bay is named for the terns that also nest in the area. One of the largest roseate tern colonies in all of North America is on Bird Island in Buzzards Bay. While we’ll never know for sure the true identity of the bird that was the inspiration for the bay’s name, we can be sure that something in that bird’s appearance or behavior suggested the Old World buzzard.

   Now that we’ve traversed the maze of buzzardology, it only remains to point out a final, unexpected twist to this tale. We’ve seen that black vultures and turkey vultures were inaccurately called “buzzards” by European settlers, who saw a superficial resemblance between the two vulture species and the Old World buzzard, which is really a hawk. In Florida, “Spanish buzzard” is a regional name for the wood stork (Mycteria americana), a bird that is not Spanish. Nor does it look remotely like buteos such as the red-tailed hawk. No, this stork was named “buzzard” after the vultures that could be seen in the area, because like the vultures the wood stork is a high and frequent soarer and its long-beaked head does have a certain vulturine quality. Now, recollect that the turkey vulture and the black vulture were given the inappropriate name of “buzzard” because of a fancied resemblance to the Old World buzzard, which is really a hawk. So now we have a stork wrongly called a buzzard because it vaguely resembles black and turkey vultures, which are themselves wrongly called buzzards.

   But wait, there’s more! Until very recently, all the day-hunting birds of prey were lumped together in one huge, general group called an order. The scientific name given to this order was Falconiformes. Within this order ornithologists recognized five smaller groups, which are called families. These five were: The seven species of New World vultures, which included the black vulture and the turkey vulture, as well as the California condor and the Andean condor; eagles, hawks, kites and Old World vultures; falcons and caracaras (caracaras are long-legged, heavy- beaked raptors found only in the New World); the secretary bird, living only in Africa; and the osprey.

   The family of New World vultures, which are quite different in appearance and behavior from Old World vultures, was thought to be only distantly related to the other diurnal birds of prey. But some ornithologists doubted that there was any relationship. They pointed out that there were many important similarities between storks and New World vultures. One is the fact that both New World vultures and storks are almost voiceless. Both groups lack specialized muscles in their voice box or syrinx, and so their vocalizations are neither varied nor loud, ranging from a grunt or growl to a menacing hiss. Another characteristic of the New World vultures, especially the black vulture is the somewhat unsavory habit of excreting on their legs in hot weather. This is called urohidrosis. As the moisture in the excrement evaporates, the birds are cooled. Storks also do this , but no other type of bird has evolved the habit.

   Now DNA analysis has proved what these scientists have suspected: New World vultures are indeed closely related to storks and not to raptors. As a consequence of DNA testing, the old order known as Falconiformes has been discarded. All the diurnal raptors, from eagles to falcons to hawks to Old World vultures, are now placed in the order Ciconiiformes, along with New World vultures and their relatives the storks. There are 25 other families in this huge order of 1,027 species, including shorebirds, herons and penguins.

   So you see the wood stork was not inappropriately named when it was dubbed “Spanish buzzard,” because it really is related to the black vulture and the turkey vulture. On the other hand, those two birds were inappropriately named, because they are not related to the Old World buzzard, which is really a hawk…oh, never mind. Unless new forms of scientific testing make it necessary to change raptor classification again, let’s just stick with what we’ve got. It’s confusing enough!

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