Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

One of the most popular ducks from the winter count is the bufflehead. This is a small duck (half a mallard) and a diver, too. They winter at Wilbur Lake (and elsewhere, I hope) along with a large flock of geese, a few ring-neck ducks, and a couple of eagles. We counted them in the two hundreds this winter.

They seem to enjoy themselves. (Geese, on the other hand, seem so stuck-uppishly serious.) Bufflehead flitter to and fro, chase each, chase nothing, pop up like corks, paddle around vigorously going where ever their little hearts seem to take them. If you listen carefully, they call with a quiet little chirp.

The name is a stopper, however. Look at this little cutie and ask youself what “buffle” has to with its head? For that matter, what does “buffle” mean?

My first best source is the American Heritage Dictionary, because it is handy, and always a good place to start. (The Merriam Webster Collegiate series is the university preferred dictionary but AHD is what I have at home.) Online, I use’s Columbia Encyclopedia as well any of their other sources. For further checking, and perhaps a definitive answer, you should visit either Sherrod Library on campus or your public library and search what nature studies they have and, of course, use the Oxford English Dictionary.

Buffle comes from an obsolete reference to buffalo. How you get from buffalo to buffle is easy enough. Mumble buffalo badly (to a scientific collector slightly hard of hearing) and you get “buffle.” The next obvious question is how someone saw buffalo in the fan-crested head of a duck? The crest is huge, which helps with the name. This disporportion would be difficult to describe so maybe saying “buffalo”
helps with some kind of reference. The cardinal’s crest is obviously so much smaller in relation to the body than the bufflehead or Hooded merganser.

A second interesting name is its genus species. The genus includes “cephala” so a (good) first-guess would be “something-head.” It seemed tricky until I stumbled across “Bucehpalus” (nothing like being lucky) which was Alexander the Great’s war horse and the name is Greek for “bull” “head.” This is making more sense, at least.

The species starts with “alba”: white. It is the same alba in albino, for instance. It also means chosen or first. If I had to guess “ola” means spot or space as does “ola” in areola. The species etymology might need be taken as one description meaning “white spotted.” At least, that is what I am guessing. The black and white color scheme is not consistent across a flock but it seems likely a good way to help indentify buffleheads.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote that the French were the first to Europeanize the naming in North America but lost the continent and the privilege to the British. There is, still, a tremendous portion of nature in America named by the French, however. (For instance, buffalo and prairie.) But the Europeans (more British, I wonder, than French) eventually established the genus species in the new world--and an awful lot of common names-- and that’s pretty much the cultural battle.