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Birder Jargon Project: TVs, BVs, and MODOs

May 23, 2012
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There are few topics, aside from cats, hunting, and elitism, that bring out the listserv cranks like alphacodes.  Though not every birder uses them, every birder seems to have an opinion of them, and generally one’s estimation of use of the insidious little four letter abbreviations is negatively correlated with the number of years one has past one’s drinking age.  Alphacodes, or banding codes, are nothing more than a shorthand notation bird banders use to assign species to the birds in the hand whose data needs to go quickly and simply onto one sheet of paper.  Each individual species is assigned a four letter code based on the first four letters of a one-word name (Dovekie is DOVE), the first two of a two word name (Bald Eagle is BAEA), the first letter of each of the first two words and the first two of the third in a three word name (Great Blue Heron is GBHE), and so on and so forth.

It doesn’t seem super difficult to grasp until you start to realize that several species have identical alphacodes (Great Kiskadee and Gray Kingbird and Green Kingfisher, for one) and necessitate small adjustments (GKIS and GRAK and GREK, incidentally) and you realize why Joe Birder reading his listserv digest doesn’t want to think any more than s/he has to.  Birding can be hard enough without playing Jr Jumble in every post.  And I can’t say I blame them.

Tuvu, or TV, or whatever.

I’m fairly ambivalent about the codes, really.  I used to use them more regularly in my own note-taking before I switched to the slightly easier 6 letter codes created by Michigan ornithologist Bruce Bowman which have fewer of those collisions and are easier to immediately grasp without a key.    Though I’ve even heard some prefer the completely insane six letter scientific name codes (.pdf), which make up in novelty what they lose in ease of use.  Excellent trivia fodder, though.

But these things manage to worm their way into the general birding vernacular too.  I can think of three specific cases, though perhaps you all can think of more.  The use of the term MODO to refer to the continent-spanning Mourning Dove is so pervasive that I remember it being the answer to a question in Trivial Pursuit, and there’s scarcely a birder around that doesn’t mumble “modo” when one of those abundant columbids wings by.

The Vultures, by virtue of their prevalence, also get the abbreviatory treatment.  Back in my younger days Turkey Vultures were appropriately Tuvus, but it wasn’t until I started haning out with a good friend who was also an avid hawk-watcher that I learned that those U’s were superfluous.  Turkey Vultures are TVs and the more uncommon (at least outside of the southeast) Black Vulture had to be BV.  A side note, using these appropriate abbreviations shields you from the embarrassment of calling out “Turkey!” and “Black!” at the top of your lungs, both of which are somewhat easily misunderstood in diverse company.  We are too often clueless to social cues, endearing though it may be from time to time, yet we need not always be.

There are undoubtedly other alphacode derived nicknames for birds out there.  Anyone else know any?

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3 Comments
  1. dendroica permalink
    May 23, 2012 9:25 pm

    I use four-letter codes for note-taking and try to stick to the proper AOU/BBL codes as much as possible. Unfortunately there are some overlapping codes (BLWA has to become BLBW and BLPW for Blackburnian and Blackpoll Warblers, respectively). Then there is the issue of lumped subspecies: should one use the old codes (like MYWA and AUWA for Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers and YSFL and RSFL for Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Flickers) or simplify things by creating a code for the lump according to the formula (YRWA for Yellow-rumped Warbler and NOFL for Northern Flicker)? For personal note-taking, it probably doesn’t matter a great deal, but I’ve been trying to learn the correct BBL codes. It’s not always obvious when a species code won’t follow the formula, though.

  2. May 24, 2012 11:19 am

    Thanks for yet another terrific, thought-provoking entry. Tho I’ve been birding for decades, I never knew about the codes until I joined Birdchat and PABirds online. My son-and-birding-partner made up a few (unscientific but descriptive) ones of our own for some common birds: “Chuck” for northern mockingbirds (for their calls) and “Ling” for starlings.

    Your “TV” and “BV” (which we use, as well) brought back happy memories. My dear Mom, who passed away in January, used to give us containers of her homemade soup. One bore the mysterious label “TV Soup.” We decided to call it “Turkey Vulture Soup.” Turned out it was “Turkey Vegetable.” But we always referred to it as “Turkey Vulture.”

  3. Laurent Fournier permalink
    May 31, 2012 2:33 pm

    I use a terribly unscientific and inconsistent mix of 2 (for TV!), 4 and 6 letters code, with a little personal twist: I use a capital letter for the first letter of each word. This way, Mourning Dove is MoDo, Great Crested Flycatcher becomes GrCrFl, Blue-winged Warbler BlWiWa. I think it is easier and faster to read.

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