Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Eurasian Wigeon...a common rarity

The Eurasian Wigeon is a handsome duck. It appears to be most abundant (or most frequently reported) in northern Europe, especially in Denmark, the UK, and Iceland. Japan appears to host them in good numbers too. The Eurasian Wigeon is also a regularly occurring vagrant in North America. Considering how frequently they are seen on the east and west coasts of North America, it is surprising that we have yet to discover a mating pair in the new world. They are sometimes known to hybridize with their American Wigeon (anas americana) cousins. Also interesting to note that eBird shows no records of anas penelope in the southern hemisphere of our planet. 
Every fall/winter, Boise area birders begin the "Where's Waldo" game of searching through huge flocks of grass gobbling American Wigeons in search for "The Red-headed One". We always seem to find a couple to a few each year and they seem to be found consistently in just a handful of locations. We sometimes wonder if they are same birds coming back to visit us each winter.
Always curious about the history of words and names, a little Googling led me to some hints as to the history of the scientific name anas penelope.

Latin anas = duck
Greek penelops = duck
Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus pene = weaver, also - The Greek duck called “penelops" was said to have rescued the famous Penelope when she was an infant.

So the Eurasian Wigeon is a duck so ducky that it had to be called "duck-duck" by the scientific community?

I asked Rick Wright about any history he might know of the name anas penelope. Here's what he says:
"It's very complicated, and I don't think there's an answer. The naming of a duck after a woman named after a duck suffers from catachresis, and even if Linnaeus had meant to do it, we'd have to figure out why he named that particular species for her. Linnaeus gives us no clue in his original description. The story about the infant Penelope and the seabirds (not identified necessarily as ducks in all the antique glosses) is probably better understood as a secondary attempt to explain a Homeric name that had become etymologically opaque. I much prefer the readings from Greek pene meaning "weaving," which of course is what Penelope the character is all about. William Camden's Remains of 1605 says that the woman Penelope "loved and fed" "birds with purple necks" called penelopes. Doesn't sound much like wigeon. Choate throws up his hands, too, in this case, so I'm in reasonable company in not being able to get any farther with this question--a good one indeed."
Old world and new world cousins during their winter family reunion.


  1. Now I want to just report it as duck-duck if I ever see one. Could be a fun moment while doing identifications of a mixed flock "duck-duck... goose!"

  2. Nice write up in the Duck-Duck Robert, and great photos too. It appears you've had some run-ins with this legendary bird!
    Thanks for the etymology lesson, although I'm not sure I'm leaving with any closure : )
    To bad none turned up in Phoenix this winter.

  3. Terrific post and photographs! They certainly are beautiful ducks!