Deciphering the Bird Codex

Updated: Mar 17

(Full disclosure, this isn't actually an ancient and secret code of birds. BUT I do think it's really interesting and a handy thing to learn if you're an avid birder.)


How to Use Alpha Codes in Birding

Lately, I've been interested in learning about the alpha codes used in ornithology. These four-letter codes (and six-letter codes for the scientific names) were created to make data and record-keeping easier for bird surveys, banding, and other research projects. If you are obsessed with eBird checklists like I am, these codes also make recording your sightings easier and faster. It's much less work to enter "13 NOPI" (Northern Pintail) or "5 BBMA" (Black-billed Magpie) instead of typing out each bird and entering the number manually. These will help save time and space if you write out your checklists by hand.


Each code is pretty straight-forward (usually) and simple to figure out. Birds with a one-word name are assigned the first four letters. A few birds make it even easier since their names are only four letters in total.

Anhinga = ANHI

Sora = SORA



Two-word names take the first two letters from each word.

Ruddy Duck = RUDU

Winter Wren = WIWR


Birds with three parts to their name use a 1-1-2 pattern.

Great Blue Heron = GBHE

Black-bellied Plover = BBPL


Four-word names simply take one letter from each word.

Black-and-white Warbler = BAWW

Northern Saw-whet Owl = NSWO


Very few birds have 5+ word names, and they usually take the first letter of the first four words.

Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle = BAWH

Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher = BAYS


If you want to get crazy, there are also codes for hybrids and unidentified birds.

Western x Mountain Bluebird Hybrid = WMBH

Unidentified Duck = UNDU


There are (of course) exceptions to this, often making codes confusing and tricky. For example, Barrow's Goldeneye is BAGO; Barnacle Goose would end up being the same code if we followed the above patterns. Instead, the alpha code is BARG to ensure no duplicates exist.

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HOLA! Which is also what I imagine Horned Larks are saying when they dash in front of the car

Most of these codes sound like complete jibberish, but there are some hidden gems that I think are hilarious:


PSSH (Puerto Rican Sharp-shinned Hawk)

MOPE (Mottled Petrel)

HOLA (Horned Lark)

SPOO (Spot-breasted Oriole)

EAGR (Eared Grebe)

LOCO (Lovely Cotinga)

BABE (Barred Becard)


And some codes spell animal names, making your field notes look extra confusing. (Being able to say you've banded a PUMA would be pretty cool though...)


CROW (Crested Owl)

MOTH (Mountain Thrush)

PUMA (Purple Martin)


There are even human names hidden in these codes, which would make a great addition to my baby name book.


ROSA (Rock Sandpiper)

HUGO (Hudsonian Godwit)

WILL (Willet)

LEVI (Lesser Violetear)

LARA (Laysan Rail)

CATE (Caspian Tern)

CATY (Cattle Tyrant)

GREG (Great Egret)

These codes are easy to pick up and start using in your checklists and field notes, so next time you're out birding try practicing some of them!


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