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Deciphering the Bird Codex | Learn bird codes

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.

A generated image of "The Bird Codex."
How to Use Alpha Codes in Birding

If you enjoy the silliness of this article about bird codes, consider JOINING THE FLOCK!

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?

A Horned Lark sits on a Barbed Wire fence.
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 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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