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The Code


There is some irony in taking more than 3,000 words and two full days on the ABA blog just to reach this conclusion:

Do we have to waste this much time and inbox space ranting about [four-letter codes]? Is it really that important? Don’t we have better things to discuss?

I assume that Derek Lovitch intended his questions to be purely rhetorical. But let’s pretend that these are real questions, questions about which reasonable people might differ. My own answers:




No, we shouldn’t be wasting our time ranting about these blasted abbreviations, and no, it really isn’t that important.

But as birders in twenty-first-century America, neither do we have anything better to discuss.

You see, names are what our hobby is all about. It’s not about the birds, it’s about the linguistic labels we pin on the birds.

A century ago, it was anybody’s guess which direction this newborn hobby would grow in. The defining focus of American birding could have been conservation, or life history study, or aesthetics, or taxidermy, or any of the thousand and one things the human mind can do with a living object. Instead, we decided, I believe more or less consciously, to make bird-watching about identification.

Some of the considerations behind that choice are obvious, others more subtle. They all boil down to two things, though: Identification was far easier to communicate in print than were other birderly concerns; and identification came with an arcane terminology that made it easy for those interested in such things to assert their “scientific” authority.

And what is identification? It is the fixing of the correct word—the name—to the object of observation. A good birder speaks the right name when a bird appears; a bad birder speaks the wrong name. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter how well your memory and your mind “know” the two common eastern Melanerpes woodpeckers: If your tongue says “red-bellied” when it should mean “red-headed,” you have failed.

This is ultimately why, as Derek wondered, birders “get so worked up” about four-letter codes. It’s not really for any of the very many practical reasons rehearsed over and over on listserv after listserv; it’s because the codes deprive us of the only way we have to demonstrate our expertise as birders, namely, speaking and writing The Bird’s True Name. Like cutesy nicknames, slips of the tongue, and outright misidentifications, the codes and any other modification of a bird’s English name debase the currency of communication in ways that go beyond mere meaning to call into question the very legitimacy of our hobby.

Seen in this light, our annoyance with the codes is the manifestation of a much deeper anxiety. The same anxiety bubbles to the surface every July in our reactions to the English-name deliberations of the AOU’s North American checklist committee; it boils over when we overhear someone using an “old” name in the field. Surely, if words are just arbitrary signifiers—and they are—we should be able to live blissfully with anything; but because our only fetish is words, any threat to their stability imperils the foundations of what we do when we bird.

I have great sympathy with those of my colleagues who disapprove of the codes in running prose. The codes are contrived and arbitrary, they rely on a system pocked with exceptions, and yes, they sometimes seem to find disproportionate favor at the blowhard end of the birder spectrum. But none of that is sufficient to rouse even the crotchetiest of us to the ire that Derek records. Our vehemence comes from a much deeper place, the desire to protect what we have defined as essential in American birding.


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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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