Speaking in Birder Code
By Jeremy Schwartz
When’s the last time you saw an AMRO?
How about an AMCR, or a ROPI?
If you live in an area in the U.S. or Canada populated by humans, then you’ve probably seen these three things so often you don’t even notice them anymore.
They’re not types of cars, or mysterious government organizations. I’ll give you hint: I’m talking about birds (as if the title of this article didn’t give that away).
The four-letter abbreviations I provided above are shortened names for some of the most common birds across North America. An AMRO is short for American Robin, while AMCR is the American Crow. ROPI? That’s short for Rock Pigeon, which is the species name for most of the common pigeons you’ll see in cities and parks.
These abbreviations are known as alpha codes, and there’s one for nearly every bird species that calls North America and parts of Central America home. A master list of all 2,143 species is kept by the American Ornithological Society and updated every year as bird species names change or new species are split off or lumped into existing ones.
The abbreviations owe their origin to a scientific journal article published in 1978. The authors, M. Kathleen Klirnkiewicz and Chandler Robbins, wanted to codify a universal system for identifying birds caught and banded for research purposes.
The code system the authors wrote down was already in use by many bird observatories across the country, though not consistently so. They wanted to change all that with their paper by providing a single resource researchers could easily consult. Their paper also established the rules for abbreviating a bird’s common name. Here’s a screen capture I took of this paper explaining the rules:
If I, for example, abbreviated my own first and last name this way, I would be JESC.
I first became aware of the concept of alpha codes on a birders’ email listserv I subscribe to for my local area. This email message board is specific to Washington state, where I live, and is the place for local bird sightings and advice on all things birdy.
A few times a week someone would mention a specific bird by its code name, with others on the list generally seeming to understand what was meant. I also saw them used on the very first Christmas Bird Count I participated in with my wife in 2016 as our expert birder team leaders used them as shorthand to mark what species had been seen.
As a newbie birder, I figured the use of these codes in everyday conversation marked you as a “real birder.” If you could tell other birders how many SPTOs (Spotted Towhee) you saw on a recent bird walk, or the time you drove a few counties over to see a SNOW (Snowy Owl) hanging out in a field, then you were definitely part of the club.
To Code or Not to Code?
Then one day on the local birder email message board, someone started a discussion about the over-use of these codes. The guy’s point was simple: If someone new to birding wanted to join in on conversations via the listserv and saw what amounted to a different language being used, that would be a pretty big barrier to entry.
We birders, this guy reasoned, want to make our hobby as accessible as possible to everyone. Birders can already be incredibly pedantic sometimes when it comes to the full names of birds (there’s technically no such thing as a “seagull…”), so why introduce a whole new naming system?
This point resonated with me. I’ll admit: it is fun to know the basics of this abbreviation system. If there’s an abbrevation I don’t know, which is still many, I still know how to look it up. It makes me feel like part of the club, and that’s a natural human desire.
But at the same time, I want others to become interested in my beloved hobby and not feel like they have to learn a whole new language or get kicked out of the club. As I’ve interacted with more serious birders, I’ve encountered this mindset more and more. On my second Christmas Bird Count, one of our team leaders wrote down her own personal abbreviation for a specific species. Here was this birder with 20 years’ experience who didn’t know these alpha codes by heart. As long as she marked down the right species, and others knew what she was talking about, that’s all that mattered.
These alpha codes do serve an important role in bird research and conservation. They help birders talk to each other in a useful shorthand, but they are not a prerequisite for getting involved. All that’s needed is an interest in these incredible animals and a desire to learn. Show those two things, and even newbie birders will be welcome by experts on any birding trip.
How to Speak “Birder”
In actual speaking usage, rather than typing or writing, the alpha codes discussed above are relatively rare. But birding definitely has its own regularly used terms that can be confusing to beginners. Here are five of the terms or phrases I hear most often and what they mean.
Short for “binoculars,” the most important tool in any birder’s toolbox. Other shorthand versions of this word I’ve heard include “binos” and “binocs.”
Use It in a Sentence: “I almost dropped my bins in the lake trying to get a good view of that heron!”
A list of all the different bird species a given birder has seen in his or her life. Some birders choose to keep individual lists for their state and even county.
Use It in a Sentence: “After that last outing, my life list is up to 209 species!”
The very first time a bird is seen and added to a life list. If you happen to be around a birder who just secured a lifer, be prepared for a high five!
Use It in a Sentence: “Did you hear? I finally got my lifer Northern Shrike last weekend!”
The bird that trigger’s a birder’s fascination with birds themselves. Often this bird represents the first time a birder really took notice of these fascinating animals, either through some notable sighting or event.
Use It in a Sentence: I probably wouldn’t be the birder I am without my spark bird the House Finch visiting the very first feeder I put up all those years ago.”
A bird that, for whatever reason, proves incredibly hard to spot for a specific birder time and again. Often used in a tongue-in-cheek way, a nemesis bird usually always flies the coop just as a birder arrives in a specific location to see it and add it to his or her life list.
Use It in a Sentence: You mean the Green Heron flew away?! Gah, my nemesis bird strikes again!
Have a birder term you’ve heard that you wanted defined? Ask away by emailing email@example.com!