Let's Talk About Birds: Ducks


2/3/2016

A marbled teal is one of the few species of teal that lacks any of the color teal in its plumage.

 

This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

Two people are out taking a walk along the river — one is a birder and the other is not. The birder says, “Duck!” and his companion quickly crouches down, thinking he is about to be hit in the head by something. He looks up cautiously to see his friend calmly focusing his binoculars on a web-footed bird floating in the water.

So, which came first, the noun or the verb? The double meaning of “duck” stems from the Old English, “dūcan,” meaning to dive, dodge, plunge or dip. The observation that some kinds of birds would suddenly dive or plunge their heads under water to feed is what led them to be called dūce, meaning divers. So, the verb “duck” actually came first.

Worldwide there are about 130 species of ducks. There are roughly three dozen kinds in North America, and most of these can be regularly seen in Pennsylvania for a few weeks during spring and fall migration. Not all ducks are named “duck,” though. Ducks also go by names such as merganser, scoter, wigeon, eider, shoveler, pintail, scaup and teal. In general, these common names reflect a close evolutionary relationship among the species that share them, but with one exception. Scientists classify the 15 or so duck species known as “teal” in at least five different taxonomic subfamilies.

The name teal, like duck, has a double meaning, being both a color and a type of duck. But, again, which came first? The color teal, in use only since the 1920s, stems from the appearance of the colored area around the eyes and on the wings of certain ducks called teal, from the Old English word for small duck, “tǣle.” So, the word for the bird came first.

Oddly enough, some of the species now named teal, such as the marbled teal, actually lack the color teal in their plumage. To make matters even more confusing, ornithologists have changed the names of some ducks from “teal” to “duck” or vice versa. But, one thing that is consistent across most species called teal is that they are comparatively small ducks with short necks, and they are predominantly vegetarian, obtaining seeds and other plant material by “dabbling” with their bill at the water surface or by “tipping up” to reach plants growing in shallow water.

The National Aviary is home to several species of ducks, including ruddy duck, hooded merganser, falcated duck (formerly known as falcated teal), ringed teal and marbled teal (formerly known as marbled duck), and these can be seen in the Wetlands and Tropical Rainforest exhibits. If you’d like to see even more kinds of ducks, sign up for my all-day tour of lakes and reservoirs taking place on March 19, during the height of the spring waterfowl migration. For details and to register, go to http://aviary.org/special-events/waterfowl-tour or call Audrey at 412-258-9463. Space is limited to 33 participants.


The falcated teal species has the bright blue-green patch behind its eye that inspired the name for the color “teal.”


The ringed teal species has the bright blue-green wing patch, called a speculum, that also inspired the name for the color “teal.”