Easy Birding, Chapter 2, Birder Language

Birder Language

Words we apply to birding, including names of birds, are not particularly difficult. In fact, most birder language is easy. It’s not the same as learning a new vocabulary, such as needed to understand sports. Walking, off sides, putting a flag out or something like that, love, sudden death and a whole dictionary of terms are need just to watch television. Of course, some terms might not seem readily apparent as to the correct application. For example, if someone yells duck, what should be done? There are also some complications arising from the names of birds, especially when abbreviated, such as TV, which as most easy birders might figure out is Turkey Vulture. If some announces that a bird is a sharpie, it could mean a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but it might also mean a kind of sparrow or sandpiper. On the other hand, it might mean a brand of pen.

Bird names

Let’s start with bird names since most birders are going to look through a field guide before actually committing the act of actual birding. We need to have an inkling of what we might see before we see it.

English names for birds that we use, are not just any old name. Also, they must be capitalized. The moniker is House Sparrow, not house sparrow, and is the one and only Passer domesticus, the introduced bird lots of people really hate. Maybe that’s why we no longer call it the English Sparrow. Why hurt the feelings of people of the United Kingdom? Why House Sparrow? That is the name adopted by the Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of the American Ornithologists’ Union. This learned body of members of the committee decide important taxonomic issues such as how many species are actually hiding under the name Canada Goose and whether the order including ducks should set at the beginning of the sequence of birds or not. Not long ago, in fact, loons, which had for decades led the list, were placed not only after ducks but also after galliformes, those chicken like birds we know as quail, grouse and pheasants. Now the first birds enumerated in field guides and checklists are ducks and geese. It is official. The AOU checklist committee declared it.

But why House Sparrow? As any birder knows, patience is a virtue. The answer is coming, but let’s get back to the AOU committee.

From an ornithologist point of view, their work is a service. To a birder, it is essential. Otherwise, how would anyone know that the formerly small Canada Goose is really a Cackling Goose. That’s a simplification of AOU’s toil. While they are making and breaking species, they are also deciding their English names. Those are the ones we see on the checklist. The scientific names are, of course married to an English name. That way, we are all speaking the same language. No colloquial names. All they do is confuse people. Subsequently, the name Cackling Goose represented certain birds, once subspecies of the species known as Canada Goose. Several subspecies of the Canada Goose were found to be so different from the other subspecies of Canada Geese that the two sets had to be recognized as separate and distinct species. That’s the science of it. But why Cackling Goose? Why not Lesser Canada Goose? If there was a Lesser anything there would have to be a Greater something. That would mean the well-known Branta canadensis couldn’t be just be called Canada Goose. Also, Cackling Goose was already in use by game managers, the people who work in refuges and game commissions. They seem to ignore the AOU’s common names, but that’s another story. For now, let’s ignore the fact they ignore the AOU’s name. It is logical to have these new geese on the block have the name Cackling. Dusky and Sooty Grouse is another example of the AOU using names already in use by game managers. It might seem that the AOU is following game bird vernacular, but they are merely attempting to maintain nomenclatural stability. What good would it have been to call one of those grouse say Grimy Grouse.

Oh, yes, the little brown and messy bird frequenting almost anywhere there are people, Passer domesticus, former English Sparrow, got its name by a habit. Wherever there are people there are, in this country and most others, houses. In some places, ubiquitous species might be called a Yurt Sparrow, Adobe Sparrow, but by majority the native to the Old World, has laid claim to every house eave, opening and crack to breed and breed. House Sparrow is a logical moniker.

Sometimes English names don’t make that much since. The former Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers, when found to be the same species, were officially dubbed Yellow-rumped Warbler. There are at least a couple of North American warblers replete with big yellow rumps. That’s ok. Accept it, don’t let it butt into the fun of easy birding. After all, there are many aptly named birds. For example, Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers. Older folks knew the two as Western Flycatcher, but research showed that there were two species under that name. Generally, the Pacific-slope Flycatcher is found closer to the Pacific than the Cordilleran Flycatcher. Come to think of it though, both species occur where rivers flow to the Pacific, and both birds may frequent mountains. Nothing is perfect, especially the Gordian mess of Empidonax flycatchers. They are not easy birds.

Some English names of birds have been recycled. The old Green Heron has gone from Green-backed Heron back to Green Heron. Yours truly and the late Burt Monroe are partly the blame for the returned use of Green Heron. Bullock and Baltimore Orioles were lumped, and called Northern Orioles. When it was realized that there were indeed two species, the eastern and western species got their old names back. That’s science for you. We make mistakes, but should own up to them.

Besides using AOU English names, there are birders who like to shorten them. For example, Rough-legged Hawks are called Roughlegs. That’s correct, not Rough-legs but a one-word bird: Roughleg. That is how some would have us write the word, really not a word at all. Of course, it’s hard to tell whether someone is speaking, “Rough leg, Rough-leg or Roughleg. Of course, the bird that gets checked off on the list is Rough-legged Hawk. Then there’s the Cooper’s or simply Coop for Cooper’s Hawk, the Sharpie, usually meaning Sharp-shinned Hawk, but it might mean one of several species. Sharp-tailed Grouse could be Sharpies.

Of course there are the directional first Western vs. Eastern something, the color short-handed name such as Olive for Olive Warbler, Olive Sparrow? Some first names of birds could get you in trouble and they might best not be put into play so to avoid being arrested (see that chapter). While standing on a summer beach it might not be a good idea to yell out “Look at the Great-tail!” In the presence of others, it might be disquieting to some by announcing “There’s goes a red-eye” That could mean identification of an airplane flight, a drunk wondering what you are doing, or a bird with a red-eye, maybe even a Red-eyed Vireo. You wouldn’t want to say, as an overweight person waddled by, “What a mountain.” In the presence of women, be sure to put nuthatch in the list of White-breasted, Red-breasted and Pygmy. Imagine describing your birding trip. “I saw a Mountain and a great-tail. It was no Pygmy and I got a red-eye.” Maybe the red-eye was from watching a great tail with pygmy fronts. Also be careful leaving off anything beginning with wood. Using the whole English name should avoid confusion, insult, or both.

Besides identifying birds with only part of their name or some bastardization of it, some birders use abbreviations. Perhaps the most common is TV for the familiar Turkey Vulture. BV may be in use by some eastern birders for Black Vulture. Mourning Doves are sometimes called MDs. “Is there an MD in the field?“ Is it healthy to use these abbreviations? Some abbreviations for birds could cause some uncomfortable situations.

“Wasn’t that BO wonderful?“ Perhaps Bullock’s or Baltimore Oriole do not smell all that great.

At a Christmas count compilation: “Does anyone have TB?“ “Yes, 56 Tricolored Blackbirds and I feel fine, thank you. Oh, I forgot the PS (Pine Siskin).”

Some birders use a four letter abbreviation when communicating, such as YRWA. The abbreviation is from the Alpha Codes, four letter abbreviations, each one unique to a species. YRWA is bird bander speak for Yellow-rumped Warbler. Those four-letters fit nicely on a banding form, and, remarkably many of them don’t overlap acronyms of other things. A few do, such as CACG, aka Cackling Goose.

Most of these abbreviations are confusing when set out of context or bandied in front of those new to the game of short-handles and abbreviations. Since it isn’t possible to always understand everyone’s perspective, or be aware of all abbreviations, it seems prudent to use the proper English names. This is especially a good practice in the company of novice birders. The birds themselves may be confusing enough without the preponderance of nebulous abbreviations and abridged avian names. As for the Alpha Codes, keep them for banding forms. Although banders are birders, there are far more birders than banders. By following an inveterate set of names, those used by the AOU and ABA, the chances for being babbling birders are greatly reduced.

Other birding language

Birders never swear. Oops. The h_ _ _ they don’t. Of course, some never do, and a few do all the time. Most don’t apart from exceptional moments, such as running from a colony of pursuing killer bees, almost stepping on a poisonous snake, maybe a spill to the ground or perhaps something more important. What could be more important than angry stinging or biting animals that are possibly deadly? What could be worse than a fall? By some standards, there is none. Easy birding means not falling and contending with death. However, easy birding also means seeing birds, and any damn animal that might change fate, seeing THE bird could generate a four-letter refrain. Maybe more, who knows what smut might be set in motion. Actually, seeing a great bird is almost a religious experience and brings birth to something like “Holy sh_ _!” A “Sweet Mother of Pearl,” would do as well but takes longer to say. It is a good idea to avoid any “F” words, no matter how wonderful or perilous a birder might feel. Even “phooey” should be avoided just incase something should obscure the last part of the word.

There are a few words that come to mind that might determine a life bird or having a near death incident. An ecologist friend was in a lead canoe through swampy waters. Two canoes followed just behind the lead canoe carrying the friend. They were speeding along, perhaps looking for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, but that’s not the point. My friend yelled, “Duck.” The first person in the second canoe looking up, craning to see the duck, was whacked smartly in the face by a low hanging branch. If you are the navigator and see a white bird, don’t blurt out tern to the confused driver. If you don’t know the species, just keep quiet. The judicious use of booby has already been supported by several warnings to birders. Of course, some bird names might creep into the punster repertoire. Most serious birders will not swallow such railings. And why not? They are busy ducking limbs and looking for terns and ducks at every turn.

Besides nicknamed birds such as Sharpie or TV, or using Alpha Codes for birds that already have familiar English names most people know, there is the vernacular for birding equipment. For example, binoculars might be called glasses, binocs, binos, or bins, who knows. Telescopes are often referred to as scopes, but “sco” may be out there too. Field guides frequently come under different names that usually are not confusing. People will speak of their Geographic for the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Shortening the title seems prudent while saying the whole title at least one booby, a tern and a swallow could fly by. Some birders refer to their field guide by its author, such as Sibley or Peterson. The Geographic guide has no single author, but calling it the Dunn and Alderfer should be ok.

Birders often carry with them other items to make their birding easy. Many will have DEET, bug spray or repellent, skeeter begone, you name it. They all help keep the pesky bloodsuckers at bay. Birders may carry other stuff with them, such as a compass, tape recorder, MP-3 player complete with surround sound and subwoofer. Some of the essential and not so essential birder stuff is covered in the chapter “The Equipment.” The stuff birders lug around have a myriad of names. Keep in mind that novice birders are trying their best to identify birds. Suggesting they point their bins at the mixed flock of ploves to see the TEST is unfair. For those who are not multilingual, ploves are plovers and TEST is Temminck’s Stint. Incidentally, the alpha code for this Asian visitor mocks personal failure. The opportunity to see the bird found mere hours away was passed up. A real birder would have met the test and driven the miles for such a rare species. Opportunistic birding is something discussed in another chapter. In the meantime, easy birders don’t need to be short shifted by shorthand birders.

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