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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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  • DSB

    Thank you. Outstanding. End communication…..

  • David

    I think you’ve got it backwards. The people who hate alpha codes are the ones least concerned with what you call a bird. They are the ones who are distressed that a chicken hawk was chasing the snowbirds from their feeder. It’s the people who involuntarily twitch when someone mis-ID’s a bird who use Alpha Codes. It’s the ones who least care what a bird is called who resent having to learn yet another set of jargon.

    Gross oversimplification, but my point remains. Identifying a bird is about knowing what it is, about the challenge of deciphering the correct field marks. The name is inconsequential.

    • cestma

      This sort of arrogance and stereotyping does the hobby no good, IMO. It just may be attitudes like this that make others “hate” alpha codes. For the most part, I don’t think most non-users “hate” alpha codes, they just find it another roadblock to understanding. One which, BTW, has nothing to do with field marks.

      • David

        No arrogance was intended (though I suppose it rarely is..), and I freely admit that I was grossly over-simplifying and stereotyping to make my point.

        I guess I didn’t communicate that point well, because I merely wanted to get across that I think Rick’s point that “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.” is backwards. Codes are another “True Name” for birds, another, more obscure, way of demonstrating expertise.

        You are absolutely right cestma, they are a barrier to understanding to many, and I think that’s why they are disliked (by the way, the word hate was used an awful lot when Derek inquired about codes, so many people DO hate them).

        • cestma

          Yes, you’re right, the word “hate” has come up frequently in these threads. (And I feel the same way as you do concerning that sentiment of Rick’s.)

          I like the codes myself; I just have a great deal of sympathy for beginners, and remember how intimidating everything can be when one starts out. I probably read more into your opening paragraph than you intended.

    • Ted Floyd

      Man, this is precisely the opposite of my own experiences. When I say or write “Canadian Goose” or “Cheddar Waxwing” or “Violent-green Swallow” or “Limmeral” or “Great Blue Herring,” my actions inevitably elicit howls of protest. These are correctly ID’d birds. We all know what they are. Their names are highly consequential.

      I mean, think about the reaction when you don’t capitalize Canada goose or cedar waxwing or violet-green swallow. Everybody knows exactly what you’re talking about. But many of us feel as strongly about capitalizing birds’ names as some others feel about capitalizing personal pronouns to indicate the Christian godhead. Birds’ names–even their spelling and orthography–are highly consequential. Birds’ names are practically sacred.

      • David

        But that’s just my point, Ted. I’m sure you got howled at by the very same people who use Alpha Codes. Alpha codes are in and of themselves another “sacred” name for birds, because they are “official”. I think it’s a rejection of that very thing, a rejection of a need to put a name on a bird first and foremost, that contributes to many peoples dislike of Alpha Codes.

  • Ted Floyd

    “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.”

    A little field guide, published 81 years ago, had a lot to do with this.

    Peterson’s field guide triggered an immediate and lasting rejection of the legacy of such nature educators as Anna Botsford Comstock and Neltje Blanchan. What we moderns tend not to realize is that Comstock and Blanchan and their ilk were publishing superstars, more influential in their day than today’s most celebrated bird book authors. Imagine if their legacy had lived on, with its emphasis on sentimentalism and science. Huh?–sentimentalism and science in the same breath?? Yes, and I think that gets at Rick’s point: Birding might have been so different today that we moderns wouldn’t even recognize it as such.

    Today, you get in all sorts of trouble if you say in public that you’d like a field guide presented in a scientific manner or with a holistic emphasis on bird appreciation.

    It’s dogma for many that a field guide must enable one to put a name on a bird. Try pulling that stunt in an intro ecology course in college, and you won’t get very far. Instead, you are taught to make predictions and test hypotheses about the mechanistic drivers of process and pattern in nature. As a mentor of mine once cautioned, “Audubon didn’t get tenure this year.”

    Good stuff, Rick.

  • Mike Patterson

    This whole getting the names right thing is not unique to birders. You’ll find name police among the butterfly and botanists folk as well.

    As an environmental educator, the least important piece of information I can give a budding naturalist is the name of a thing. That point was driven home to me the weekend I spent with beetle and spider people a couple years back. We didn’t name a single organism more concretely than family. We couldn’t. And we didn’t have to. The names sometimes get in the way of a bigger picture.

    I would encourage that journey forward into the past suggested (at least hinted at) by Ted. Seek out a copy of Neltje Blanchan nature books (I have several) or John Bichard May’s Hawks of North America. Things were a lot more laid back in the days before “Standardized English Vernacular” made folks think that there was only one right name for everything.

  • Ted Floyd

    By emphasizing birds’ names, we see birds differently:

  • Ted Floyd

    This post is awesome. I just have to say that. So much insight, so succinct, so readable. This is a tour de force.

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