Like every other specialized activity, the noble pursuit of bird watching has accumulated its own collection of jargon, slang, and scientific vocabulary. Fortunately, there’s not too much to learn. If we all pull together, pretty soon we’ll be talking like the pros. Below, you’ll find many of the terms, taxonomy, and organizations bandied about in birding circles. For definitions of colors and patterns, check our Plumage Pages.
The ABA is the American Birding Association
The ABC is the American Bird Conservancy
An alcid is a bird in the Alcidae family (order Charadriiformes) which includes auks, auklets, murres, murrelets, puffins, and guillemots (no puffinlets or guillemotlets currently known). Dovekie and Razorbill are also part of this group. Puffins are probably, thanks to their clownish appearance and ornate, multicolored bill, the most famous of the living alcids. However, the tragic loss of the Great Auk (Alca impennis), extinct since 1844, serves as a popular precautionary tale of human savagery towards other species.
An alcid might most easily be described as the Northern Hemisphere’s version of penguins, though this explanation is simplistic and not entirely accurate. It is true that all 23 members of the Alcidae family found on the oceans and coasts north of the equator are smart looking, fish-eating, swimming and diving marine birds, just like penguins. It is also true that alcids are stout, short-necked, often black and white birds with a fondness for cooler waters, just like penguins. But one known difference is that alcids can fly, sometimes over vast distances. Also, no alcid to my knowledge goes to the cinematic extremes of breeding and chick-rearing immortalized in the brilliant March of the Penguins!
Anorak is a British term used to describe a dull person or an individual with a boring hobby. This British term was originally used to disparage nerds of all stripes. However, it has evolved into a more mild tag for obsessive personalities like trainspotters, techies, and stats junkies. How did innocent birders get lumped in with the pirate radio fans and number fetishists? It is probably due in part to our collective emphasis on lists and counts. I suspect the real reason is that anyone who is passionate and knowledgeable about a hobby that requires a specialized skill-set can be hung with this label. That makes birding a perfect fit.
Anseriforms are members of the Order Anseriformes; swans, geese, and ducks.
The AOU is the American Ornithologists’ Union
A Big Day is an individual or small team effort to identify via sight or sound as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period on a single calendar day. The team can go anywhere, use specialized gear, and even take time-outs. The rules defining an official ABA Big Day Count, posted by the American Birding Association, serve to prevent this frenzy of bird spotting from deteriorating into complete chaos. Thousands and thousands of birders do a Big Day the ABA way every year, usually in May.
The Big Sit is an event that centers around spotting as many species as possible in 24 hours. In this way, it is similar to other big birding events. What makes The Big Sit! so special is, you guessed it, the sitting. Every participant must stay within the confines of a 17-foot diameter circle. Fortunately, you can create your own circle. You can count any bird that you can see or hear outside the circle, but your observations only count if they are made within the circle. Participants can enter and exit a circle as frequently as desired, but must return to the exact spot each time. Thus, people can work in shifts and tally results for the circle, not the individual birders.
The phrase bluebird of happiness is the creation of Maurice Maeterlinck, a Belgian playwright and poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. One of Maeterlinck’s most famous plays was The Blue Bird, written in 1908. The Blue Bird is a fairy tale, allegorical in an unsubtle way. In the story, Mytyl and Tyltyl, the children of a poor woodcutter (a stock character in fairy tales) fall asleep after a disappointing Christmas and dream that a fairy sends them to find ‘the bird that is blue.’ The siblings journey through dreams to the Land of Memory, Palace of Night, and Kingdom of the Future, as well as a very angry Forest, but return home without the object of their quest. Their neighbor Berlingot (actually the fairy) begs the siblings for their pet dove for her dying daughter and Tyltyl notices that the bird is actually blue, the one they were looking for all along. They give the blue bird to the child, who miraculously recovers, but the bird escapes. The Blue Bird is described in the play as ‘the great secret of things and of happiness.’ Yet, Mytyl and Tyltyl seem much cheerier after their adventure, despite not finding the blue bird. The moral of the story is that true happiness is usually found close to home. It comes from making the journey, not from reaching the destination, from acting unselfishly rather than focusing on selfish needs.
Butter-butt is a popular nickname for Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Charadriids are members of the Family Charadriidae; plovers, lapwings, and dotterrels.
Columbiforms are members of the Order Columbiformes; doves and pigeons.
Corvids are members of the Family Corvidae; crows, ravens, jays, and allies.
Dimorphism, specifically sexual dimorphism is a difference in form between individuals of different sex in the same species. Songbirds like warblers, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, and sparrows display dimorphism as do ducks, hummingbirds, and galliforms from chickens to peafowl to grouse. The males of these species are bright and showy while the hens are conservatively dressed.
Emberizids are members of the Family Emberizidae; sparrows and juncos.
Endemic means belonging or native to a particular people or country. This definition, however, does not account for the fact that a bird born and raised in a region is not necessarily endemic to it. Another definition of the word is native, as distinguished from introduced or naturalized. The ecological definition of endemic is something that is peculiar to a particular region or locality. Endemic species are those that cannot be found anywhere else. Of the world’s 10,000 bird species, more than 2,500 are endemic. If you want to see these birds, you’ll have to travel; chances are that endemics are few no matter where you live.
A flyway is a route used by migratory birds for passage between wintering and breeding ranges.
Frugivorous means fruit-eating.
Gallinaceous is an adjective describing birds of the order Gallinae, which includes common domestic fowls, pheasants, grouse, and quails. Birds in this category are also called galliforms. Gallinaceous can be more broadly defined as meaning chicken-like, in honor of the most popular and widely-consumed of the galliforms. Everyone has seen at least a few gallinaceous birds, since domesticated chicken and turkeys are in this category. The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) was domesticated at least 4,000 years ago from Asian jungle fowl, most of which are beautiful, but scrappy. Obviously, those traits had to go. Most game birds are also galliforms, including grouse, partridges, pheasants, quails, ptarmigans, and wild turkeys. You have to feel bad for turkeys; they’re not safe anywhere.
Goatsuckers, alternately caprimulgids (why bother really?), are members of the Family Caprimulgidae; a group of crepuscular birds also known as the nightjars; poorwhills and nighthawks.
Hazing describes any wildlife population control initiative that employs sound and light to drive away animals. Hazing usually calls for lasers, pyrotechnics, and loud noise, which makes this practice virtually indistinguishable from a good rock concert.
Hirundids are members of the Family Hirundinidae; swallows (seldom used term.)
Icterids are members of the Family Icteridae; blackbirds, grackles, orioles, troupials, and cowbirds.
An irruption, from the Latin -rupt (burst, break), is defined as a sudden violent entrance or a bursting in. It may also reference a sudden and violent inroad, or entrance of invaders. Now, we avian enthusiasts do not equate birds with barbarians. An irruption is used to describe a large incursion of birds of a single species into an area outside of their normal range. Although exciting to observers, these movements are usually driven by unstable weather conditions or lack of food, so be nice to the tourists. (Note that the occasional stray visitor is not called an irrupter, but a vagrant.)
Larids are Larus genus members of the Family Laridae; gulls (seldom used term.)
A Life List is a list of all the different bird species a birder sees in his or her birdwatching life. The world’s five top listers have seen more than 8000 species each – a figure usually only reached by spending vast sums of money on travel and guiding, enduring unfeasible amounts of discomfort in often very damp forests, and having no other interests in life whatsoever.
A lister is a birder who keeps track of birds spotted through the use of checklists ranging from simplistic to Byzantine.
Little Brown Jobs or ‘LBJs’ are any ill-defined, small dull-coloured birds that some birders just don’t want to bother with. For reasons why they possibly should, have a look at Little Brown Jobs.
The lores is the space between the eyes and the upper part of the bill. If you’re having trouble picturing this area, imagine where a bird’s glasses would be perched if it were to wear cute little bird glasses. In some birds, the lores presents the most conspicuous field mark. For example, the White-throated Sparrow is most easily identified by its yellow lores.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918 expressly forbids any party, unless permitted by regulations, to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention…for the protection of migratory birds…or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” (16 U.S.C. 703) The Migratory Bird Treaty Act covers most (83%) of all native birds found in the U.S. It also applies to birds included in the international conventions between the U.S. and Great Britain, Mexico, Japan, and Russia, respectively. Many species not covered by the MBTA are covered by the Endangered Species Act, or other federal or state laws.
Mobbing is when a group of birds band together to chase an intruder, usually a larger predator, away. Many birds, especially those higher up on the food chain, are fiercely territorial. When a bird of a different species intrudes on contested ground, a defender may take it upon himself to gently chastise the trespasser. If necessary, many birds will go so far as to kindly escort the interloper to a more propitious locale. Despite the inconvenience, most birds seem happy to show a neighbor the way to a different bird’s doorstep. Mobbing is a way for smaller birds to assert themselves over larger rivals or predators. Crows mob hawks, jays mob crows, and sparrows mob jays. Even hummingbirds are in the business of chasing and diving after bigger birds that offend them. Mobbing is not in itself a predatory behavior. Pack hunting is a behavior that allows animals like wolves to use cooperation and cunning to bring down larger prey. Mobbing, on the other hand, is a purely defensive activity. Its primary goal is to drive an intruder away. Failing that, mobbing still serves to notify others of the intruder’s presence, and also distracts a predator from nests or young.
The Neotropics are identified as the biogeographic region of the New World that stretches from the northern portion of the Mexican rainforest and the Caribbean islands southward through Central America to the non-tropical regions of South America. This habitat redefines the concept of biodiversity. More species of birds are found in the Neotropics than in any other known ecosystem. Entire avian families, including cotingas, manakins, toucans, and ground antbirds, are essentially confined to the Neotropics, as are such unique species as screamers, trumpeters, sunbittern, hoatzin, and boat-billed heron. Neotropical migrants are birds, especially songbirds, that summer in North America but migrate to the tropics for the winter. This practice is incredibly common and irresistibly seductive, so much so that some birds that make the trip cannot be troubled to return to our more temperate climes. For example, the erstwhile Olivacious Cormorant has become so enamored of its winter getaway as a species that the bird spends as much time as possible there and is now known as the Neotropic Cormorant. Having been there myself, I can’t say I blame them.
Parids are members of the Family Paridae, often referred to as tits for legitimate, as opposed to lascivious reasons; chickadees and titmice.
Parulids are members of the Family Parulidae; New World wood-warblers.
Passerine describes any bird in the order Passeriformes. This is easily the largest order of birds, comprising more than half of all known species. Passeriformes is divided into two suborders; most of these birds are Passerii, oscine songbirds. The rest are suboscines, distributed throughout Eurylaimi (broadbills), Tyranni, (flycatchers), and Menurae (lyrebirds). Oscines have greater control of their syrinx muscles than the suboscinces, which means they are usually better singers. Passerines are all land birds and most are insectivorous. This latter fact explains why birders looking to rack up large numbers of passerines have to leave the backyard now and again.
What are peeps? Read enough birding trip reports on this or any other site and you’re sure to hear about them. Birders run into peeps all the time, so you can be sure the term does not refer to those sickly-sweet marshmallow chicks that only spring up around Easter. Nor is this term restricted to teens talking about their friends in chat rooms, as in “Yo, yo, yo, I’m kickin’ it with my peeps fo sheezy.” In the natural world, peeps are sandpipers, pure and simple. Actually, it’s not that simple. “Peeps” is the birding term used to describe several species of sandpiper of the genus Calidris that are near impossible to tell apart. These small shorebirds all have short legs and similar plumage and frequent mud flats in search of the same food. Traditionally, the five species of peeps in North America are the Baird’s, Least, Semipalmated, Western, and White-rumped sandpipers. Sometimes the Sanderling is added to the list. International birders include four Eurasian sandpipers, called stints, on the peeps roster. The Little Stint and Red-necked Stint are rare visitors to North American shores, while the Long-toed Stint and Temminck’s Stint don’t seem up for the trip.
Pelagics are birds of the open ocean; includes, but is not limited to a variety of alcids, gulls, gannets, skuas, jaegers, tubenoses, and sea ducks.
Picids are members of the Family Picidae; woodpeckers and allies (seldom used term.)
What is pishing? Quite simply, to pish is to say “pish, pish, pish” several times in the hopes that curious birds will come and investigate. The pish should sound like you are trying to silence someone: Psshh. In theory, birds are attracted because pishing mimics the sound of a bird that is hurt or in trouble. Another alternative is that the birds are curious about the humans making weird pish noises under their tree. I suppose the reason doesn’t matter as long as it works. Another form of pishing is also known as squeaking. To squeak, noisily kiss the back of your hand in order to attract hidden birds. This form of pishing makes a noise like a bird scolding a predator, which often entices other birds to join in. For obvious reasons, pishing is best done in the company of other birders or, even better, deep in the woods far from everyone. Non-birders don’t seem to understand. Pishing should also be avoided in any situation that might bring peril to birds, such as when cats or raptors are hunting in the area. Finally, keep in mind that birding ethics calls for a non-invasive relationship with birds. You wouldn’t throw a rock at a bird just to flush it from the bush (right?) so do not disturb them needlessly by pishing them if you don’t need to. Show respect. Now, pish away!
Poll describes the top of the head or the part of the head between the ears. The Blackpoll Warbler, for example, is all black on the top of its head.
Psittaciforms, alternately psittacids, are members of the Order Psittaciformes; parrots, cockatoos and lorikeets.
Raptors are soaring birds of prey; eagles, vultures, falcons, hawks (also grouped by genus as buteos and accipiters), and sometimes owls.
Ratites are members of the Order Struthioniformes, all flightless birds without a keeled breastbone, and, with the exception of the cuddly kiwi, are far and away the tallest birds in their respective territory; rheas, ostriches, emus, cassowaries and kiwis
The RSPB is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Shorebirds are members of the Order Charadriiformes; plovers, avocets, stilts, and sandpipers.
Skulking means marked by quiet and caution and secrecy or taking pains to avoid being observed. What separates skulking from secretive behavior is that given time and patience a skulker – unlike a truly secretive bird – will often reveal itself when whatever danger it thought was there has passed. (more on the differences between skulking, secretive, inconspicuous, and wary)
Trash bird is birding lingo for any species that is so ubiquitous in a location that it surpasses unremarkable and becomes truly irritating. Trash birds hog the feeders, crowd the trees, and consistently outcompete other species for habitat and resources. Their belligerent success spells failure for many other kinds of potentially more interesting birds. Although most birders are too polite to use this derogatory term in mixed company, few, if any, can claim to love all birds equally. If some species had to be sacrificed for the greater good, these are the ones that would be tossed on the trash heap. The title of trash bird is bestowed because a species is exceedingly common in a certain locale, at least for part of the year. It stands to reason that birds common in one part of the country are rare or even unseen in other places. The lesson here is not to grow to contemptuous of any birds in your area, even the ones you see every single day. As they say, one birder’s trash is another one’s treasure.The kingdom of unloved North American avians is ruled by the trash triumvirate: House Sparrow, European Starling, and Rock Pigeon. Invasives all, these three species probably account for 99% of all urban bird sightings. Each one is admirable for any number of reasons, not the least of which is a shared unholy adaptability.
Tubenoses are members of the Order Procellariiformes, so named for the distinctive tubular structure of their nostrils; shearwaters, fulmars, petrels, prions, albatrosses, storm-petrels, and diving petrels.
To twitch is to deliberately pursue rare birds to add to your life list. Twitch is a verb, but it may also be used as a noun. One who twitches is, of course, a twitcher. You may be one yourself. There is nothing wrong with twitching. I do it all the time. But twitching is very far to one end of the birding continuum. Twitchers will travel across the world just to see one special bird. They will brave the most adverse conditions and penetrate the most forbidding terrain. Twitching may be fun, but it is also very serious. And yes, the term twitch does have something to do with the spastic exultations a successful bird sighting has been known to induce.
Waders, also long-legged waders, encompasses a number of families including herons, egrets, plovers, avocets, stilts, and sandpipers. The latter species, and basically any other bird in the Order Charadriiformes, may also be called shorebirds.
Waterfowl is a catch-all term for swans, geese, ducks, grebes, loons, and sometimes cormorants.
Yearlist: nothing more than the number of species a lister sees in a calendar year.
Zugunruhe is defined as the need to migrate, or more accurately as a seasonally occurring restlessness.