Wild Neighbors: Four-letter Birds

By Joe Eaton
Wednesday January 26, 2011 - 02:49:00 PM
GREG for short: great egret at Palo Alto Baylands
Don DeBold
GREG for short: great egret at Palo Alto Baylands

The language of birding has crossed a cultural divide. Readers may have noticed the increased use of the four-letter banding codes designated by the American Ornithologists’ Union in communication among birders, especially on birding listserves. Now, for the first time, they’re in a field guide. 

I’ve seen an advance copy of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, due out in March from Princeton University Press. Without getting into the merits of the book itself, it’s sufficient to note here that an AOU code is given for each species covered. What’s more, the codes are used in the text in discussions of similar or related species: the gyrfalcon, or GYRF, is “like a huge PEFA but more NOGO-like in some ways.” That would be peregrine falcon and northern goshawk to the uninitiated. 

Birders have been using abbreviations for a long time, of course: TV for turkey vulture (now officially TUVU, which sounds like a small country in Central Asia.) That was part of the folk culture, along with nicknames like “butterbutt” for yellow-rumped warbler. 

The AOU codes were originally intended for bird banders, but their use has become more widespread in recent years. I suspect there’s an age differential: people who text and twitter are likely more comfortable with PEFAs and NOGOs. 

I don’t know if there has been any attempt to standardize the formation of the codes. For a fortunate few birds, the unmodified four-letter name becomes the code: SORA, RUFF (a Eurasian sandpiper), and, since Hawai’ian species are included, IIWI (one of the drepanine honeycreepers). For some reason, SMEW (a kind of merganser) is not on the official list, although it has occurred in North America as a vagrant. 

Otherwise, the code is either an abbreviation of the bird’s name (WILL for willet, KILL for killdeer) or, more commonly, a combination of portions of the noun and its modifier (PEregrine FAlcon becomes PEFA). Sometimes the result is pronounceable. Often, though, it’s something only fluent speakers of Klingon could manage. 

Code names sometimes converge with brand names and/or corporate acronyms (LEGO for lesser goldfinch), personal names (HUGO for Hudsonian godwit, GREG for great egret, ARLO for Arctic loon, BETH for Bendire’s thrasher), or random words (FLOW for flammulated owl, HOME for hooded merganser, GLIB for glossy ibis, LARB for lark bunting; larb, you may recall, is a tasty Thai salad involving minced chicken or duck.) Others are just a clash of consonants (NSHR for northern shrike, RTTR for red-tailed tropicbird, SPSK for South Polar skua). 

Sometimes you think you see a pattern: eastern towhee is EATO, 

spotted towhee is SPTO, green-tailed towhee is GTTO. So far, so good. But then California towhee is not CATO, like the stern Roman who was always going on about Carthage, but CALT—most likely to avoid confusion with canyon towhee (CANT). 

Consistent or not, the AOU codes are likely to work their way into our vocabularies. We’ll look at a mixed batch of egrets and think, “Two GREGs and twelve SNEGs,” SNEG being snowy egret. And hawkwatchers will not have to struggle to blurt out “ferruginous hawk” before the raptor is out of sight. It’s much easier to say “FEHA.”