Full disclosure, this isn't actually an ancient and secret code of birds. BUT I do think it is really interesting and a handy thing to learn if you are an avid birder.
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I have been interested in learning about the alpha codes used in ornithology for the past few years. 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.
How to Use Bird Codes
Each code is pretty straightforward (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 duplication with BAGO exists. These conflicted codes occur frequently, and here are a few of the exceptions:
Tree Swallow = TRES
Barn Swallow = BARS
Bank Swallow = BANS
Barred Owl = BADO
Barn Owl = BANO
Broad-tailed Hummingbird = BTHU
The code for Broad-tailed Hummingbird might seem like it does not fit in THIS list. But this code has changed at least three times in the past decade due to other hummingbird name changes)
Blackburnian Warbler = BLBW
Blackpoll Warbler = BLPW
Colima Warbler = COLW
Connecticut Warbler = CONW
MacGillivray's Warbler = MGWA
Magnolia Warbler = MAWA
Prairie Warbler = PRAW
Prothonotary Warbler = PROW
Canada Goose = CANG
Cackling Goose = CACG
Oh, yes. I cannot forget the terrible trio:
Cactus Wren = CACW
Canyon Wren = CANW
Carolina Wren = CARW
Recent name changes (2023) will now create a conflict between the newly minted American Goshawk and the longstanding American Goldfinch. This will be rectified as follows:
American Goshawk = AGOS
American Goldfinch = AGOL
To see a full list of four-letter bird codes, check out this pdf from IBP!
Which are the Funniest Bird Codes?
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 have 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 are out birding, try practicing some of them!
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