Common Ground: Duck, duck, loose terminology

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Scoter? Surf, white-winged or black? Or would that be a yellow nose? Don’t run afoul of waterfowl terminology.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Scoter? Surf, white-winged or black? Or would that be a yellow nose? Don’t run afoul of waterfowl terminology.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

An unquestioned law of the waterfowling world requires that any given duck has more than one name.

The descriptions of a particular duck change not because the duck has changed, but depend on the weather, location, time of day and ancestry of those in proximity. New names are often introduced only when a flock is coming into the blind at 30 or more miles per hour and the bird at issue is in range. For the hunter experiencing any first in the duck-hunting arena, indoctrination in new duck names is part of the initiation ritual.

Before I went on my first sea duck hunt, I consulted my bird identification book and waterfowl regulations for the area. I was going to be hunting, among other sea ducks, a large, stocky diving duck commonly called a surf scoter and less commonly called perspicillata.

The still photos were easy to identify. But the real skill in identification of waterfowl comes from boat men who are experienced at shooting drakes only on the wing. These same men are also experts at a game old duck hunters like to play on the book-learned sportsman.

My partner was throwing out a gang line of mallards that were hand-painted by our captain to look like surf scoters and long-tailed ducks. Since I could identify the decoys, I figured I could probably identify the live bird. My hunting partners were seasoned waterfowl veterans who might be happy to fill in the gaps in my understanding. What I should have done, in hindsight, was take my bird identification book with me and agree upon a vocabulary before I became part of a high-seas Abbott and Costello routine.

When we were set up in the boat blind, I could see a flock of black birds coming our way through a screen of camouflage.

“Scoters?” I whispered.

“Those are yellow noses.”

They were getting within range so I mounted my shotgun.

“You don’t want to shoot those,” the captain said.

“We don’t shoot yellow noses?” I asked. But before I could get clarification another group of three black ducks were coming in.

“Yellow noses,” the captain whispered. I didn’t mount my gun.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Are we not shooting yellow noses?”

“Yeah, but those were drakes,” he said.

There are three different types of scoters (surf scoters, white-winged scoters and black scoters). On this trip the black scoters were called yellow noses. We might also see any of the following six ducks — old squaws, cockawees, southerlys, grannies, buffs, butterballs, buffalo heads, scaup, bluebills, broad bills, scuds, grease chickens, flying carp, whistlers, goldies, squeakers, fish ducks, saw bills, dun divers, harleys, French pheasants, water chickens, hairy heads, mergs, fish sticks, hair heads, hell divers, pencil beaks, mud stompers, zipper beaks, spike bills, marina ducks, lead heads, bobbers, lucky ducks or safe ducks, which were any ducks that flew by me.

I was the only person in the boat who called a duck what it was called in the regulations. For instance, I call mallards, mallards. I’m also lots of fun to play Scrabble with. But I needed to learn the concealed rules of the name game quick.

“Now, what are you calling a surf scoter?” I asked.

“Those are skunk heads,” the captain said. “The white-wings are Nikes because they have the white Nike symbol by their eye.”

My hunting partner pointed out what appeared to be a bufflehead or harlequin along the shore. That’s a “no neck” the captain said. I didn’t know if he was confirming or arguing the breed.

“Is a no neck a bufflehead?” I asked.

“No, a no neck is a no neck because it’s got no neck.”

“But what kind of duck is it?” I asked.

“It’s not a duck,” he said. “I don’t know what it is.”

“Well is that a duck or is it a no neck?”

“Might be a Harley,” he said.

I was confused and exasperated. “I don’t care anymore,” I said. “I’m going to shoot the first surf scoter I see when it comes in.”

The captain had fired up the motor to move our string of decoys. “What was that?” he asked.

“Surf scoter,” I said.

“No,” he said, looking up into the air, “that’s a raven.”

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing. She can be reached at For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.


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