Birder Jargon Project: Jeepers, Peepers
Shorebirds have a reputation for being intimidating identification challenges. In some ways it’s an unfair characterization, and one that may prevent some beginning birders from getting their hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of their ID. After all, many of the common species, those your most likely to come across on your local mudflat, offer few major challenges. One shouldn’t be intimidated, this reputation for difficulty is more or less based on a handful of species pairs for which there’s no shame in leaving them as “slashes” (Short/Long-billed Dowitcher, Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs), and birds that for many are synonymous with shorebirds themselves, the “Peeps“.
The term Peep is so ingrained in birder culture that it’s difficult to imagine that it’s not an immediately evident phrase, but many a new birder could easily get tripped up by it. In fact, there’s probably no other term that is so insular to the birding community. For all the hand-wringing about how the US Fish & Wildlife Service counts “birders” in their annual determination, the most accurate number could probably be figured by polling knowledge of the word “Peep”. If you look at birds, you know what it means. If you don’t, you have absolutely no idea and no context by which you can even guess.
It refers, of course, to the small North American sandpipers of the genus Calidris, a large, but not necessarily diverse, genus of streaky brownish/grayish birds that make up the bulk of shorebird migration across much of the continent. I’ve heard that the term “peeps” refer to the call notes of the group, nearly universally short and pipery, like a toy whistle, but I’m not convinced this is accurate. It could just as easily be a reduction of the word “sandpiper” itself, though that may be retroactively applied. In any case this little bit of birder jargon is pervasive in the birding community. It transcends geography. It’s used on beginner bird walks and family specific guides alike.
Peeps is most generally used to refer to the the five smallest Calidris sandpipers; Least, Semipalmated, Western, White-rumped, and Baird’s. Occasionally, Pectoral Sandpiper, commonly referred to as “Peck“, is considered a peep as well, though that has more to do with the fact that it usually accompanies the other five than any sort of structural resemblance.
The smallest, the appropriately named Least Sandpiper, is often called simply “Leastie” in the field. At first glance this seems to be another example of the commonly applied -ie suffix, but there’s a practical application too. The plural form “Leasts”, has an uncomfortable consonant cluster at the end. The extra vowel stop in “Leasties” does make it easier to get your mouth around. While probably unintentional, it’s a result of one of the many idiosyncrasies of the English language.
The only other Peep with a regularly used nickname is the Semipalmated Sandpiper, often called simply “Semi“. Semipalmated, referring to the distinctive partially webbed feet of this shorebird, is a mouthful in any situation. Semipalmated Plover can also occur on the same mudflats, so a distinction has to be made, commonly (at least in my experience) as “Semi Sand” versus “Semi P“, but more often the less exciting “Semi Plover”.
Of course, you could always just call them slashes and be done with it.