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The bird watcher’s lexicon

In any subculture, a specialized language evolves for any number of reasons. It helps people communicate more clearly. It can enhance efficiency in communication. It may help professionals in the field. It can even create a sense of identity for others who are immersed in the subculture. Bird watching is an excellent example of how a specialized language has been created.


So what are some of the parts of this bird watching lexicon? And do these give us a greater depth of understanding? I find it useful to consider bird watching terms in groups.


One obvious group of birding words relates to the physical features of the birds themselves. This is known as bird topography. We can easily understand a bird’s crown or flanks, but there might be some confusion if someone says “Check for yellow lores on that sparrow.” In this case, you might be trying to determine whether or not there are small tufts of yellow feathers between the beak and each of the bird’s eyes. Other terms frequently used for species identification in the field are primaries – the longest outer wing feathers of a bird – and undertail coverts. There is a really useful video about bird topography on the Peterson Field Guides YouTube channel if you want to learn more.


Another group of birding terms relates to bird behaviors. I was recently chatting with a professional naturalist in eastern Ontario who had done a lot of bird survey work. At an American Redstart nesting location, he remarked on philopatry, and I was puzzled at this. As it turns out, this is the tendency of a bird to return to a particular area. The phenomenon is also known as site fidelity. Many Redstarts will in fact return to the same nesting territory year after year. Another example familiar to Londoners would be the return every March of Ospreys. These birds most frequently return to the exact nest that they have used in the previous year. After a little post-winter refurbishment of the nest, they will settle in again.


Synanthropes are birds (or other animals) that have successfully adapted to intensive human settlement. Crows, Rock Doves, and House Sparrows are among these species.


Crepuscular species are those that become more active at dawn or dusk. In the London area, these birds include Black-crowned Night-Herons, Common Nighthawks, Eastern whip-poor-wills, and American Woodcocks.


Even non-birders might be captivated by great flights of one bird species. So-called murmurations of European Starlings, either witnessed in person or viewed online, can be really impressive.


A third category of birding terms is tech-related. RBAs are Rare Birds Alerts that keen birders can subscribe to. Serious bird watchers may refer to Code 4, 5, or 6 birds. These groups are set by the American Birding Association and include very rare birds in a particular area.


The birding community, like other subcultures, has developed a lot of slang terms of time. This is a fourth category of birders’ language. If a birder sighs and says that they dipped on a peep, a non-birder might be perplexed. They only mean that they tried to observe a small sandpiper, however they were unsuccessful. Other entries on the list of birders’ slang are included in an online post of The World Outdoors.


Inevitably, there are other bird terms that experienced birders will use. FOY is an acronym that refers to a first-of-year sighting of a particular species. “Pishing” refers to an onomatopoeic sound you might make to attract the attention of a bird in a bush. Lifers are the first-ever sightings of bird species by a particular birder.


If you are curious about other bird watching terms, check out a comprehensive listing of bird watching terms on the North American Birds website.

There is an extensive subset of birding language that refers to bird topography, or the physical features of a bird. In this photo, the White-throated Sparrow’s yellow lores are visible. photo by Paul Nicholson.


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