Blane Klemek: Cub, calf, kitten: What’s in an animals name?
I remember sitting in one of my first college biology courses when our professor began speaking about the Latin naming convention for biota and the primary reasoning behind it. As he explained, “It’s so a biologist from Russian and a biologist from the U.S. can speak the same language.” Say what?
Indeed, Latin scientific names enable anyone across the globe, no matter the language they speak, to universally understand one another when communicating about any species. Put another way, while the common name for the moose is known as something different in Russia, the animal’s Latin scientific genus and species name is the same: (Alces alces).
Animal common and group names have always interested me. In the above example, the animal that we know in North America as a moose is known as an elk in Europe, and hence another reason for Latin names. And in another example of interesting naming convention, consider this; if a young Canada lynx is called a kitten, then what is a baby African lion called? If a newborn deer is called a fawn, then what is a newborn elk called? Or if a mallard hatchling is called a duckling, then what do you call a newly hatched loon? The answers are what you might or might not expect. Respectively, cub, calf, and chick are what those young lions, elk, and loons are correctly called.
Yet, as one would expect, there are abundant exceptions to even these normally accepted names. For example, if you find yourself talking to a farmer in Kittson County, Minn., the most northwestern county of the state that borders both North Dakota and Manitoba, newborn and yearling deer are not fawns at all, they’re calves.
Horses are another confounding lot. Most people refer to newborn horses as colts, when in actuality a colt is a young male horse, which becomes a stud or stallion as an adult. On the other hand, an adult female horse is a mare, but in her first year of life she is called a filly. So what’s a newborn horse called? Simply, a foal.
Male and female names are interesting, too. If logic follows, one would think that since our adult male and female North American deer — black-tailed, mule, and white-tailed deer — are all referred to as bucks and does, respectively, then the gender names for adult moose, elk, and caribou would be the same, right? Wrong. They are, of course, bulls and cows.
Rabbits and hares are oddballs too. Males are bucks and females are does, but newborns of both species are not fawns. Rather, a newborn cottontail rabbit is called a bunny, kit, kitten, leveret, or nestling; and a young snowshoe hare is called a leveret.
Gender names for birds are typically less confusing than mammals. In fact, many are simply called males and females. But most birds are referred to as cocks and hens, or sometimes roosters and hens. American woodcock males, for example, are called roosters, whereas the females are hens. Other notable cocks and hens are ruffed grouse, mourning dove, bobwhite quail, sandhill crane, and ring-necked pheasant. Male pheasants are also commonly known as roosters.
Raptors are a different story. Whereas bald eagle sexes are referenced as males and females, and male hawks are tiercels and females are hens, the male turkey vulture is a cock and female’s a hen, but a male owl is, well, an owl, while a female owl is a hen. Got it?
Even human names are assigned to avian sexes. Male wild turkeys are toms (or gobblers) and yearling males are jakes. Female wild turkeys are hens (sometimes jens), but a yearling hen is a jenny. And collectively, turkey youngsters are called poults or chicks. But perhaps the most peculiar of bird names is what male and female swans are called. A male swan is a cob and the female is a pen. Their offspring, you might expect, would be a gosling, but you’d be wrong. Young swans are cygnets.
Group names for animals are as varied as the creatures they represent. For instance, if someone was talking to you about observing a fleet, parcel, dissimulation, volery, siege, or cast of something, would you know what they were speaking about? Most of us know these animal collections as flocks, sometimes flights, and sometimes aviaries. In this case, we’re referring to groups of birds.
On the other hand, a murder, horde, parcel, hover or muster is a group of crows. So, again, if logic follows, then a group of ravens ought to be the same, right? Not so. An assemblage of ravens is called unkindness, congress, conspiracy, or a parliament. And those ducks walking along the lakeshore or flying in the sky? Well, you can bewilder your friends by remarking, “There’s a brace, gaggle, paddling, team, raft, flush, or a waddling of ducks!” Flock works too.
Some animal group names are humorous. A group of turkey vultures circling overhead or perched ominously in a tree above a road-killed deer is called a “wake”. A field full of singing crickets is, appropriately, an orchestra. And for those of you planning your next trip to the zoo, here are a few other groups to become familiar with: band of gorillas, tower of giraffes, bloat of hippopotamuses, cartload of chimpanzees, cackle of hyenas, buffoonery of orangutans, and a leap of leopards.
In an already wacky world of wildlife words, not all groups of birds are flocks and not all groups of fishes are schools — they’re shoals, drafts, nests, casts, draughts, runs, catches, drifts, hauls, steams and swarms, too!.
Regardless of the name — be they common or Latin — it’s fun to point out that a group of swimming swans is a regatta; that a pollywog in the pond is a soon-to-be adult frog; and that a peahen is indeed the better half of the flamboyant peacock fowl as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)