Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Rarely Seen Field Mark

Thursday, January 31, 2013
A drake ring-necked duck.

Many birders have asked themselves, when afield and bird watching, why certain birds are named for virtually indiscernible field marks. The red-bellied woodpecker may (or may not) have a wash of pale red upon its belly, but that belly is nearly always pressed up against a tree trunk, rendering the field mark useless.

Raise you hand if you've seen the orange crown on an orange-crowned warbler!

Try telling short-billed and long-billed dowitchers apart using only your binoculars. It's tough, man!

These field marks are reminders to us that many of our native birds were named during the shotgun era of ornithology when men (yes it was mostly men) took to nature with gun and gamebag and shot any bird they saw—especially ones that were unfamiliar to them. These unknown birds were examined in the hand and sometimes given names that seemed perfectly useful to an gun-toting ornithologist who was nearly always going be looking at bird corpses up close rather than living, flying birds at a distance.

Roger Tory Peterson helped the ornithologists and bird enthusiasts of the day put down the shotgun and pick up the binoculars when he introduced his Field Guide to Birds in 1934. In this guide, RTP provided a system of bird identification based upon field marks that could be seen from a distance. No need to shoot every bird to know what it is, or rather, used to be.

The ring-necked duck is a perfect example of this shotgun nomenclature. It's a rare thing to see the ring on a drake ring-necked duck in the field. If Peterson or some other bino-toting bird guy (or gal) had been the first to discover this species it might have more properly been named ring-billed duck for the apparent rings of black, white, and gray on its bill.

Drake ring-necked duck, showing the ring of rusty-brown at the base of the neck.
On a recent trip to the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Florida I happened upon a cooperative drake ring-necked duck at Viera Wetlands. I must confess that it wasn't until I was looking at my images, back home in icy Ohio that I noticed that I had caught several shots that showed the ring on the neck of this species.

Pretty neat stuff! And no birds were killed in the process! Well, I did eat chicken for dinner that night, but that's a story for another time.


On January 31, 2013 at 7:27 PM Marilyn Kircus said...

I'd be rich if I had a dollar for every time I've explained the ring-billed duck or the white-faced ibis to refuge visitors. But I'm glad we no longer have to kill them to identify them.

On February 12, 2013 at 9:43 AM Peters Feeders said...

Hi Bill of the Birds. Glad you're a's a natural fit with watching nature. Sent you a tweet for this short video I used to advertise in the Digest. Probably should start again. Keep up the great work! Peter Kaye of Pete's Feeders

On February 12, 2013 at 10:06 AM Melissa said...

Great story! I've seen hundreds of ring-necked ducks but have only seen the nominate field mark a handful of times. But it's a great to see whenever I do!