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John Myers column: Jackalope, horned owls and other misnamed creatures in nature

You too can use social media and other erroneous sources to research the history behind some of the unusual names in nature.

John Myers.
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Once, many years ago, a copy editor at the Duluth News Tribune allowed the term "ruffled" grouse to appear in the outdoors section, instead of "ruffed" grouse, a flagrant error that, at the time, drove then-outdoor reporter Sam Cook to near apoplexy.

But it got me thinking. The little forest chickens do often appear ruffled, at least when I see them flying away after I miss. And why are they called "ruffed" grouse anyhow?

Turns out the term comes from the bird’s black and brown neck feathers, which the male flares into a “ruff” during courtship displays or territorial defense.

Now we know.

Ruffed grouse
A male ruffed grouse displays on his drumming log near Cloquet. Note the species is not "ruffled," although they may become ruffled if you taunt them, but are named for the dark "ruff'' of neck feathers this grouse is displaying for courtship.
Contirbuted / Sean Hall

There are many other names in the outdoors that have always stumped me over the years, so I looked them up on social media and other erroneous sources. Here are my findings:


Sharp-tailed grouse: You'll know the answer when one of these buggers flies backward into your face. Ouch.

Common tern: Literally one of the most endangered birds around the Great Lakes. Incredibly uncommon. Can we please get this changed?

Walleyed pike: Wrong and politically incorrect. First, the walleye is not a pike — it's a member of the perch family (although many perch won’t admit it.) Second, the proper name is now "Optically Enhanced Not A Pike With No Y-Bones."

Norway pine: The state tree of Minnesota is named after another country. Let’s just agree it’s a good thing the Finns didn’t get here first. Finland pine sounds silly.

Connecticut warbler: This one is about as dumb as declaring Isle Royale part of Michigan. There are no Connecticut warblers nesting in Connecticut. Zero. The largest breeding population is in northern Minnesota. If Minnesota lawmakers had any spine they would claim this bird now. Where’s that Iron Range delegation when you need it?

Herring gull: Turns out these gulls eat pickled herring out of Lake Superior. Not to be confused with the French fry gull, whose primary habitats are Canal Park and the Miller Hill Mall parking lot.

Bullfrog: Named for the nightly mooing sounds they make during courtship and the large horns they develop. Some males are called steerfrogs.

Great horned owl: Again, wrong. They have antlers, which are shed each year, not horns, which are permanent.


A male jackalope.
Contributed / Travel Wyoming

Jackalope: Completely wrong. This species is actually a cross between a mule deer and a jackrabbit. Look at the antlers! Those aren’t antelope horns!

Mule deer: A cross between a white-tailed deer and a mule. Unable to reproduce in the wild, but some have mated in captivity with the help of dating apps.

White-tailed deer: Again, it’s obvious: When startled, they raise a white flag, similar to the Russian army.

Killdeer: Small, harmless-looking prairie bird that eats venison. Preys mostly on deer and jackalopes. No known predation on humans, but some is suspected.

Electric eel: Not to be confused with the hybrid models or carbon-spewing, gas-guzzling eels, these are plug-in only.

Little brown bat: Called that only until one gets into the cabin, then it’s a huge ?!!!@## bat.

German brown trout: Named thus for their annual, boisterous brewing festivals held each October. That and they often try to take over other fish's territory.

Flying squirrel: Not necessarily misnamed, but rarely seen as they flap their wings, flying between trees in the Northland. They only come out at night and migrate each fall to Florida. Just like my neighbors.


Tufted titmouse: I was afraid to look this one up on my work computer, but turns out they aren’t mice after all. It’s a bird! The name comes from the Old English words "tit" and "mase," basically meaning “small bird.” It also has a tuft.

Thanks to social media, now we know.

P.S. If you are out in the woods this time of year, and listen very carefully, you can often hear ruffled grouse drumming with their tiny little drumsticks.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com .

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