January 20, 2013

Hunting: What's in a name? It depends where you are

By Bob Humphrey

More years ago than I care to remember, I came across an elderly bird hunter and asked how his morning had gone. His response included some mention of flushing a few partridge. I was still a student of wildlife biology and, thinking I knew it all, dismissed his identification as the ramblings of an old fool. "There are no partridges in New England," I effetely boasted to my companions.

It was not until sometime later I realized I was the fool. Everywhere else in the country, Bonasa umbellus is referred to as a grouse or ruffed grouse, but in Maine it's a partridge.

The hunter's lexicon is filled with colloquialisms, words or phrases representative of a local or regional dialect. For natives, they're part of the local language and culture, though they might seem a bit curious and occasionally confusing to folks from away.

Ask a Maine hunter running beagles what they're after, and more likely than not they'll tell you rabbits. Snowshoe hare just doesn't roll off the tongue as smoothly and might even sound a bit elitist. If they had used the term conies, they may well have been pursuing our own New England cottontail rabbit. But you won't hear that anymore, as the species is now protected.

Most hunters refer to a female deer as a doe. But in the southeast, they sometimes use the term nanny. And across the whitetail's range, hunters occasionally apply more colorful terms like flatheads and baldies, referring to their lack of antlers.

The proper term for a young deer is a fawn, but I wonder if folks avoid it because it conjures up images of Bambi. So we couch it with colloquialisms. Where I grew up, a young deer was referred to as a skipper. It wasn't until I moved to Maine that I heard the term lamb associated with young deer.

Yearling bucks present more opportunity for regional differences. A spike is a spike most everywhere, but once those antlers branch, terms vary. Some call them fork-horns or forkies. Others refer to them as crotch-horns or four-pointers, unless you're out west, where they're called two-pointers. And that trend continues in older deer, with westerners counting only one side. Thus our eight-point becomes a four-point, and so on.

Colloquialisms need not be single words. Perhaps the most famous among Maine deer hunters is "You get your deer yet?" No one asks that in other states, perhaps because they're allowed to shoot more than one deer.

Those big, black-and-white diving ducks called goldeneyes elsewhere are referred to as whistlers along the Maine coast. And though it's far less common now, there are still a few old schoolers in Maine who collectively refer to some sea ducks -- scoters -- as coots. This might lead to confusion with folks from away, as coots are also a game bird, but not a duck. They're seldom if ever seen in the marshes of Maine during hunting season, and even where they're more common, few serious waterfowlers ever target them, though I've heard they make decent table fare.

Like accents, colloquialisms add a bit of local flavor to the language and culture of hunting. As a scientist and writer, I was trained to use the most correct term. Referring to the ruffed grouse by its scientific name might endear me to my professional peers, but it won't earn much credibility in hunting camp. Each region has its own terms that, like hunting itself, should be preserved and passed along to the next generation.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

bhhunt@maine.rr.com

 

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