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Hawk “Kettle” Finally makes the Dictionary

Birders have a unique vocabulary, cribbed together from science, literature, and a thesaurus thrown at a Crayola Crayon box. But for many of our favorite words, there’s been little in the way of official recognition.

Take “kettle” for instance. A birder knows that using the term doesn’t refer to vessel for making tea (unless you prefer that to coffee in the morning), but to the churning, swirling flock of raptors rising into the sky like so much boiling water. Not only the kettle itself, but the process of hawks rising on thermals is often referred to as “kettling”.

A kettling kettle of Broad-winged Hawks is a common south Texas sight in springtime. Photo: Volker Hesse/ Macaulay Library (S35982961)

This definition has been unknown in the dictionary until now. ABA member and Delaware birder Sally O’Byrne made a formal request to the American Heritage Dictionary to include, as a definition of “kettle”, the use that birders and hawkwatchers have known for decades. And it was accepted.

Thanks Sally, and thanks American Heritage Dictionary. It surely won’t be long before words like twitch, dip, and butterbutt find their birding usage enshrined in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • Emily Snyder

    This is Emily Snyder, Associate Editor for the American Heritage Dictionaries. I’m pleased to announce that the new birding senses for kettle are now live on the American Heritage Dictionary website: https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=kettle

    • Whoa, that was fast! Thanks!

    • Rick Wright

      Neat. Any idea where the word in this sense comes from and when it was first used?

      • Ron Pittaway

        ORIGIN of KETTLE: Many years ago I heard from a NYC hawkwatcher at Derby Hill that the term “kettle” originated at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. Observers there referred to hawks soaring over the “kettle”, which was a local land formation and the word kettle gradually gained its current meaning. Ron Pittaway

        • Ron Pittaway

          The NYC hawkwatcher’s name was Walter as I remember. He was a retired NYC firefighter who regularly made the spring trip to Derby Hill. Gerry Smith, hawk counter, told me that Walter’s story made sense to him. Interestingly, a kettle was called “boil” at Derby Hill. This was in the early 1970s.

          • Rick Wright

            Thanks, Ron. “Boil” is still current for a whirling mass of birds (or anything, I suppose), and I wonder if some oblique metonymy (thing doing the boiling for thing being boiled) wasn’t at work at Hawk Mountain. Really interesting.

  • Rick Wright

    The OED has defined “twitch” and “twitcher” in the birding sense for a long time now.

  • Ann Nightingale

    Way to go, Sally! Congratulations!

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