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Speaking a Common Language

eagle, golden cape may nj

[“Golden evil circled Highover fishing Creek Marsh. . .” That’s probably what the ducks and muskrats were thinking. Photo by Don Freiday.]

Birders have a language that is all our own, and when non-birders listen, they are understandably both confused and bemused.

I recently gave a presentation to a group of keen volunteer naturalists on teaching hawk identification skills to beginners. One of my slides featured a scatter-gram:

dihedral head projection graduated tail juvenile accipiter buteo sharpie coop gos AMKE tigertail round topped pine cold front kiting gliding soaring hovering primaries secondaries flight feathers underwing coverts patagium carpal patches 3 fields over the water tower flap-flap-glide subterminal band half a glass up snag microdot tick NJBRC eBird thermals updraft velocity radar stoop angular tubular commas crescents patches belly band undertail coverts fingers emarginated gray ghost Sibley Crossley species subspecies arctic peregrine taiga merlin boreal morph hybrid cere molt day raptor keekeekerr backdoor front family genus leading edge mega WTF

My point being, anytime we use one of our fancy, special birding terms in front of normal people, we need to explain what we mean, or we are being ineffective and sometimes even exclusionary. This includes, by the way, being in the habit of saying the full name of each bird species. Try looking up “coop” or “gray ghost” in your field guide’s index, and you will quickly realize it is worth saying, every time, clearly, and maybe a couple times in a row, “Cooper’s Hawk” and “Male Northern Harrier, which birders often nickname the ‘Gray Ghost’.”

The fun thing that got me thinking about birding as a second language was when I attempted to use my phone’s voice-to-text translator to send a text message to my son, Tim, about where we should meet up to go birding. My phone produced the following:

“I just crossed the west keep me bridge, I am going to the hock watch.”

This made me thoughtful. Those voice-to-text (V2T) translator thingies are created by engineers, who are likely not birders. What would happen if I used the technology when I text messaged bird reports?
So I tried it out:

V2T translation: “Said you ran your berries landing south side of Route 60 m east of bad.”
Actual message: “Sedge Wren Norbury’s Landing south side of road 60 meters east of bay.”

V2T translation: “Golden evil circled Highover fishing Creek Marsh then drifted East”
Actual message: “Golden Eagle circled high over Fishing Creek marsh then drifted east.”

V2T translation: “Parasitic Jager southbound or breeze landing when it is not beating up Forster starts.”
Actual message: “Parasitic Jaeger southbound Norbury’s Landing (when it is not beating up Forster’s Terns).”

Hee hee! Bottom line: speak clearly and kindly to new or non-birders, define your terms (or substitute simpler ones), and say the full name of each bird clearly and twice. Soon they’ll be speaking our language.

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Don Freiday
I'm a freelance birder/naturalist/photographer living in Cape May, NJ. My professional experience includes 30+ years in the wildlife field, mostly involving education and interpretation, with several government agencies and NGO's. My hobbies include everything natural, especially birding; photography; training and hunting my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Daniel Boone; fishing; canoeing and kayaking; camping; backpacking; and a little cooking. I blog about birds and nature at .
  • Ted Floyd


    (Scarily, I know all the others.)

    • Don Freiday

      A distant bird is a dot. Now go farther.

      • Ted Floyd

        A distant kinglet, hummingbird, or tyrannulet?

  • Young Birder

    Great post. It is sometimes hard to speak no-birder, but oh well ill work on it.

    Over here the “grey goast” is the South Island Kokako, a bird thought to be extinct by many

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