Learning Alpha Codes

Last month, I started a series of "Twelve Monthly Tips" with the goal of sharing ideas for ways to improve one's skills as a birder, naturalist and citizen scientist.  These methods have all been tested and approved, and are beneficial for beginners as well as long-time nature nuts, like myself.

My tip this month is directed at stream-lining the process of taking field notes, rather than identifying birds.  Because, notes are crucial!

"Anna's Hummingbird" is a long name to write.  "ANHU" is so much easier!

It's great fun to watch birds, but the pursuit only becomes beneficial to others - and science - when we make an effort to accurately record and report what we see and hear in the field.  Of course, the first step is to make a habit of using a field notebook (or an app - but I prefer paper) to record species and keep a tally of how many of each species were seen (or heard).  Most of us can only keep track of so much information in our heads before accuracy begins to decline!  The second step is to transfer information from our field notebooks into eBird.

When we use a worldwide database like eBird to record our sightings, something really amazing happens: One individual's scarcely-legible collection of field notes and personal bird lists are combined with those from thousands of other birders around the world, and from these lists, a picture emerges of the overall status of global bird populations!  And this, in turn, acts as a sort of barometer for the health of the environment as a whole.

So, your notes are very important!

A glimpse at my notebook, indicating that at this specific place and time I saw 2 White-breasted Nuthatches, 1 Western Bluebird, 2 Nuttall's Woodpeckers... and so on.  Once home, I transfer this data into eBird to share with birding and scientific communities around the world.

An excellent way to improve the efficiency of your field note-taking is to learn the standardized Four-letter (English name) alpha codes (also called banding codes) for species you commonly encounter.  Using these abbreviated codes has really streamlined my process of taking field notes.  When my fingers are frozen and my eyes are watering as I'm staring out over a foggy pond covered in waterfowl, it's much faster to jot down four letters to represent each species, rather than write out each species' full name.

When I began birding, I was taught to take field notes correctly: write out the full name, every time, with no shortcuts or abbreviations, to eliminate any future confusion.  That made sense at the times, since I was still learning the names of birds and wanted to get all those new names correct.  So, I wrote "Greater White-fronted Goose" every time I went out and saw that species.  Pretty quickly, though, I found myself shortening it to "Greater WF Goose."  Maybe even "GWF Goose."  Then I learned about four-letter codes, and the rest, as they say, is history.  The official code, unique to this species, is GWFG, and that is how it now appears in my field notebooks.

The learning process: In the field, I wrote down the code and tally marks; back at home, I went over the list, "checking my work" and writing in the full names, to help solidify the codes in my memory (I don't do the last step anymore, unless I'm birding in a new area, with new codes to learn.)

"Alpha Codes" are standardized codes prepared by the Institute of Bird Populations, in accordance with the American Ornithologists' Union, for over 2,000 species of birds.  No need to learn all of them, or start using them all at once!  Start with "modified" abbreviations of the most common species you encounter regularly, and build up from there.  (For example, in the beginning stages, Yellow-rumped Warbler may be shortened to YR Warbler, and Red-winged Blackbird to RW Blackbird.)

The formula for the AOU's alpha codes is pretty simple, with a few exceptions.  Four-letter codes are built using the first letter or two (or four) of each word in the species' common name.

For one-word names, use the first four letters:
BUSH for Bushtit
KILL for Killdeer
MALL for Mallard

For two-word names, use the first two letters of each word:
HOFI for House Finch
MODO for Mourning Dove
NOMO for Northern Mockingbird

For hyphenated (or non-hyphenated) three-word names, use the first letter of each descriptive word and the first two letters of the general type of bird:
RWBL for Red-winged Blackbird
YRWA for Yellow-rumped Warbler
AWPE for American White Pelican

For hyphenated four-word names, use the first letter of each word:
BCNH for Black-crowned Night-Heron
NSWO for Northern Saw-whet Owl
NRWS for Northern Rough-winged Swallow
(There aren't that many in this category; most you will encounter are two-word or hyphenated three-word names.)

It helps to understand compound word names, like blackbird, flycatcher, sandpiper and sapsucker.  My natural inclination at first was to write "RWBB" for Red-winged Blackbird and "RBSS" for Red-breasted Sapsucker, since those consonant sounds stand out.  But the correct codes are RWBL and RBSA, respectively.

Things can get tricky with hyphenated words, like pygmy-owl and scrub-jay.  (Northern Pygmy-Owl, then, is NOPO and California Scrub-Jay is CASJ.)  Catching on to these subtleties is just something that comes with practice.  With time, you will learn that there are pygmy-owls and screech-owls, but not hawk-owls; the correct name is Northern Hawk Owl, without a hyphen (abbreviated NHOW). 

There are exceptions to the rule when there are conflicting or repeated codes, as is the case with Barn Owl and Barred Owl, which should both be BAOW, and alternately could both be BARO.  In this case, neither species gets the "1st-order" code (i.e. the one that follows the rules) and they both are assigned new codes: BANO for Barn Owl and BADO for Barred Owl.  These just have to be memorized.

Generally speaking, though, alternate codes still follow a pattern, and many use the first three letters of the first word, instead of just two, as in TRES for TreSwallow (which conflicts with Trumpeter Swan) and CALT for California Towhee (which conflicts with Canyon Towhee).  Luckily there aren't too many of these odd-balls codes, and fewer still that any one birder is likely to encounter on a regular basis.  (The highest concentration of confusing codes for North American birders is probably found in the warblers, since there are just so many.)

Not my field notebook (much too neat and tidy!), but a coded list of the total number of
species I saw in one winter day of birding at San Joaquin River NWR.  Writing out the
full names would have taken much longer and used four time as much paper!

To help learn the codes that don't follow the rules, I made a list!  (What else is new?)  On this spreadsheet, codes that are not "1st-order" due to conflicts are denoted with an asterisk.  I simply scrolled down the list and wrote down every rule-breaking species that I'm likely to encounter birding in California, along with its "alternate" code and made a point to just learn them.  I tucked this little paper into my field notebook for quick reference and peek at it when I'm not sure of something.  Pretty soon, you'll just know that Tree Swallow is TRES, not TRSW as it "should" be, and Cackling Goose and Canada Goose are CACG and CANG, respectively; neither one is CAGO (there is no CAGO at all in the entire list, in fact!)

Hopefully I haven't complicated an otherwise simple and effective system or discouraged you from trying it!  Even if you do forget that Northern Shoveler is NSHO rather than NOSH, you will still know what you meant when you go back over your notes later; the only other candidate for NOSH is Northern Shrike (which is actually NSHR), but it's unlikely you will forget that it was a flock of 300 shovelers you saw in the wetlands, rather than shrikes!

I can only store so much in my head at once: periodically, while hiking, plop down on a rock and update your field notebook!


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