ZOO-ology: column What's in a name?

May 29, 2011 at 12:29 a.m.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

By Judie Farnsworth

Everywhere you go, there are regional names for animals, and Texas is no exception.

This can make identifying a particular animal, by name only, rather tricky. It can also be quite interesting, if not amusing.

Think of the term pancake turtle. For the uninitiated, that could conjure up a strange image. It refers to an eastern spiny soft-shelled turtle. The soft, leathery upper shell (carapace) resembles a pancake to many. It has a voracious appetite. There is nothing soft about its bite; its razor sharp jaws are fierce.

How about mosquito hawk? This is more confusing, since it's used for several different insects and is not a hawk. Most commonly, it refers to a crane fly, but may also refer to a damselfly or dragonfly. All eat mosquitos and other bugs (flies, bees, ants).

Dragonflies have other names internationally. When I was a child, my Swedish and German grandmas called them devil's darning needles and warned they would sew people's mouths closed if they fibbed. They could weigh the good and evil in people's souls. Horrors! I'm still not crazy about them. I wonder why?

The term chicken hawk is a commonly used term in our area, but what is it? If the zoo gets a call mentioning a chicken hawk, we're not immediately sure what the caller is describing. It's often a reference to the red-tail hawk, one of our largest. But it's also used to refer to coopers and sharp-shinned hawks. Both are small hawks (crow sized and less).

Coopers and sharp-shinned hawks feed mostly on smaller birds, like doves and pigeons.

A red-tail hawk's diet is 85 percent rodents, as well as snakes, fish, crustaceans and insects. There is no bird officially called a chicken hawk, but it's a starting place for identifying.

Bullbat is a reference to a common nighthawk. It's a beneficial migratory bird that summers here and eats many night flying insects. At dusk and in lighted areas at night, it can be seen and heard swooping after bugs in bat-like fashion. It calls out with a "peent" sound.

A male displays by flying high and diving straight toward the ground. About two meters from the ground he turns upward, flexing his wings downward. The air rushing through his wingtips makes a deep, booming sound. The dives are used for courtship or warnings.

Monkey-faced owl is a regional name for the barn owl with its heart-shaped facial disc. Ghost owl, night owl, church owl are only a few other names given to this incredible bird. It's one of the best mouse traps known.

A nesting pair may dispose of 1,000 rodents a year. If you have a barn owl on your property, it's definitely earning its keep.

Just for fun - in addition to monkey faced owls, there are owl faced monkeys (Hamlyn's monkeys). They're highly endangered and live in the Congo.

I'm sure you can think of some more fun names for our indigenous animals. I'll be mentioning a few more before long.

Judie Farnsworth is a long-time volunteer at the Texas Zoo, specializing in educational programs.



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