Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bufflehead: What's in a name?

Bufflehead, Bucephala albeola, one of the smaller diving ducks, pausing for breath between dives for food.  I've seen them eating eel grass; however, their diet varies quite a bit including insects, crustaceans, mollusks, plants and fish eggs.  They're fun to watch as they arch down into the water for food, often popping up with a mouthful.

I'd always wondered about the name, Bufflehead, as duck names are typically descriptive.  the word Buffle can mean "to puzzle" or it can refer to a "buffalo," both uses being obsolete.  The derivation is French: buffle m (plural bufflesfeminine bufflonne), for buffalo.  While this bird is a little enigmatic, as it dives up and down in the water, it seems like buffalo is the likely intent.  So I hunted down a link to a Buffalo picture and, yes, I suppose, there is a ever so slight resemblance in that over-sized, squarish head but, perhaps, it would not have been my first choice of names.

Perhaps the scientific name will give us a clue.  The Bufflehead is in the genus Bucephala!  Aha, you word lovers say, it's a clincher.  "cephala" or "cephalus" normally refers to a head!  What about the "Bu," you say?  That apparently came from Greek, "bous" for cow or bull.  Here's what I found on Websters: fr. Gk boukephalē, fem. of boukephalos bullheaded, fr.bous bull, ox, head of cattle + kephalē head — more at cow,cephalic

So, imagine that you're an early American, perhaps from France, and you see this duck for the first time.  Perhaps you even realize that it reminds you of other ducks in the genus of, yes, bull heads (Bucephala).  This one has a bit of an over-sized, squarish head.  Not to mention that it is an American duck and yes, there are bison roaming the plains of early America, why not name it Buffle-head!  Hahah!  It turns out that it was also called the buffalo-headed duck prior to being called a bufflehead.  So that's that.

What about albeola?  Where did that come from?  Albeola is a diminutive of Latin albus, referring to that big white spot on the head!  It makes it easy to remember the name now, doesn't it?  Think of a Buffalo with a white spot on his head and poof, Bucephalus albeola.

Okay, so if you really want to get esoteric, why do you suppose this little duck has that great big white spot on his head?  My guess is that it is an eye spot misleading potential predators into thinking that a) the duck is far bigger than he really is (i.e., there be more underwater than meets the eye); and/or b) that the duck is looking backwards so you can't sneak up on him from behind.  Of course, your guess is as good as mine.  Happy Blogging. 

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