We ascribe names to the animals we hunt and trap for various reasons. Some describe certain characteristics of the animal, like the white-tailed deer or the gray squirrel. Others were adopted from native languages, like raccoon and moose or local vernacular like coney or polecat. Most are designed so that we can distinguish one species from another but occasionally they can still cause confusion.

The fisher, sometimes called a “fisher cat” is not a cat at all. It’s Maine’s largest member of the mustelid or weasel family – a family that also includes the skunk. And in fact, skunk musk glands are often used by trappers as fisher bait, which is not to be confused with fish bait.

The moose is North America’s largest member of the deer family and hard to confuse with anything else, at least on this side of the Atlantic. However in Eurasia it’s referred to as an elk, not to be confused with the North American elk or wapiti, which is also a member of the deer family.

The coyote goes by many names including coydog, brush wolf, prairie wolf and coywolf. Coydog came about from the largely erroneous belief that coyotes interbred with domestic dogs. It happens, but so rarely that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Coywolf is probably a more appropriate nickname, for though coyotes range from coast to coast and north to south, the version in the Northeast is the largest and has a considerable component of wolf DNA in its makeup. If you prefer to stick to the traditional “coyote,” I’ll let you decide whether you pronounce the “e” at the end.

While it may cause a considerable amount of confusion for people from away, most Mainers are aware of the difference between a grouse and a partridge. They are in fact one and the same, though some Mainers might tell you, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that if it flies it’s a grouse and if it stays on the ground it’s a partridge. Caution is advised for novice hunters as the ruffed grouse or partridge (whichever you prefer) is not the only grouse in Maine. Spruce grouse are far less common and less prone to flushing, which is why they’re protected, but doesn’t explain why they’re not called spruce partridge.

Then there’s the snowshoe hare or varying hare. The former name refers mostly to its big feet but also to its white winter coat, while the latter refers to how that coat changes to brown in the spring. Some folks also refer to them as rabbits, which they’re not. Rabbits are altricial, meaning their young are born blind and naked. Hares are precocial, meaning their young are born fully furred and with eyes open. Both species are lagamorphs, not rodents. If you look closely, you’ll see they actually have two pairs of upper incisors, one tiny pair behind the larger buck teeth that most folks associate with rodents.

Things get really interesting when it comes to ducks. A drake mallard is referred to as a greenhead and a hen mallard a susie, while male and female black ducks are simply called drakes and hens, and most folks can’t tell them apart anyway. A drake pintail is a sprig, and a really big one a bull sprig, while a hen is just a hen.

Among the sea ducks, eiders are eiders but the three scoter species are sometimes collectively referred to as coots, at least by old-timers. They should not be confused with actual coots, which are not ducks at all as they have lobed toes rather than webbed feet and a bill more like a chicken. Among scoters, only the surf scoter has an alternate name, skunkhead, owing to white patches on its otherwise black head.

Ultimately, I guess it doesn’t matter what name you use for a particular game species so long as you know when the season is open and what the bag limit is.

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

[email protected]

filed under: