Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Hawk or Buzzard?

This is as much a language post as a bit about certain birds of prey. And as language goes, part of it concerns “two countries separated by a common language.”

In the Facebook group “Scotland from the Roadside” members frequently post photos of birds of prey – Kestrels (Turmfalken), sparrowhawks (Sperber), golden eagles and white-tailed eagles (Steinadler und Seeadler), red kites (Rotmilane) and common buzzards (Mäusebussarde). Inevitably when a Scot posts a photo of a buzzard, the discussion begins.

Common buzzard (Buteo buteo)
Credit: Andrew Fuller

Scot: Buzzard on a post/in flight/sat in a tree.

Amer: That’s not a buzzard, it’s a hawk.

Scot: It’s a common buzzard.

Amer: I know what a buzzard looks like, and that beautiful bird is not a buzzard.

Scot: No really, it’s a buzzard. Buteo buteo.

Amer: Huh?

Harris hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
Germans also call this a Wüstenbussard ("dessert buzzard")

In one discussion I’ll never forget, the American insisted he had spent his whole life around birds of prey, and the buzzard in the photo was definitely a hawk. In the end he looked it up and realized the truth of what I’m about to tell you, and ended with, “I surrender. Would you like my sword, Sir?”

That is the best capitulation I have ever read. Chapeau, my fellow American!

So who’s right??

It could be argued that they both are, but not equally so. The common buzzard is indeed a buzzard. Why do Americans get confused by this every time? Because Americans call vultures “buzzards.” For clarity, we need to look at the classifications of the birds in Latin.

This not a buzzard, it's a vulture.
Photo credit: M
Buteo = buzzard

Parabuteo = sort of a buzzard

Accipiter = hawk

Cathartes = vulture

Common buzzard = Buteo buteo = Mäusebussard (not native in the Americas)

Harris hawk = Parabuteo Unicinctus = Wüstenbussard (native only in the Americas, popular in European falconry)

Red-tailed hawk = Buteo jamaicensis = Rotschwanzbussard (most common "hawk" in the Americas)

Cooper’s hawk = Accipiter cooperil = Rundschwanzsperber ("round-tailed sparrowhawk")

"Turkey buzzard" = Cathartes aura = Truthahngeier


But don’t get distracted by the English names or the American common usage. We Americans call vultures buzzards, though they are not. Try it – google “turkey buzzard,” the one most Americans have heard of. Wikipedia will correct you and take you to the “turkey vulture” page. They are not buzzards, they are vultures.

Hawks and buzzards (in the European understanding) are both members of the Accipitridae family of raptors, which in German is "Habichtartige" (hawk-like). The genus is where they split into buzzards (Buteo) and hawks (Accipiter). The vultures native to the Americas - New World vultures, such as the turkey vulture - already split from other raptors at the classification level of order. They are raptors, but they are not buzzards, regardless of what they are commonly called.

(Kingdom - Phylum - Class - Order - Family - Genus - Species)

Frankly, the buteo buteo are beautiful birds regardless of what people call them. But since this comes up nearly every time an American hears or sees a European call this bird a "buzzard," I thought I'd throw some light onto this confusion.

By now each time I see on the Scotland group that a Scot has posted a photo of a beautiful common buzzard, I mention it to M, who, like Douglas Adams’ pot of petunias, says, “Oh no, not again.” 😊

Some of the other birds mentioned above:

Kestrel (falco tinnunculusTurmfalke)

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus; Sperber) in our neighbor's tree

White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla; Seeadler), Isle of Mull

Red kite (Milvus milvus; Rotmilan)

Back to the wildlife photography I've seen in the Scotland Facebook group, do check out Andrew Fuller's portfolio of photos from the Outer Hebrides and elsewhere! Truly breathtaking.

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