Birder Jargon Project: TVs, BVs, and MODOs
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.
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?