Four Helpful Letters

Common Redpoll_FtCollins-CO_LAH_0044Here’s a little quiz with two questions.

  1. What do ARLO, LEVI, ROSA, WILL, GREG, and CORA have in common?
  2. What do the following words have in common? MALL, HOME, LIMP, KILL, SURF, SAND, LIST, UNDO, WILL, DOVE, LITE, COTE, SATE, MASH, GLIB, HASH, SNOW, BARS, VEER, CORE, HASP and LISP


Did you figure it out? Here’s a hint—it has something to do with birds. Here’s another hint—both questions have the same answer. Now did you get it?

Common Raven_BlackCanyonoftheGunnisonNP-CO_LAH_0961

Yes, they all are 4-letter abbreviations for bird species. The official terminology is “species alpha codes.” Of course, most alpha codes don’t spell anything, such as ROPI for Rock Pigeon, or HOFI for House Finch. I just picked some that do so I could have some fun. (If you want a list of the species represented, it’s at the end of this post.)

Great Egret_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_3618Not all birds around the world have 4-letter codes. North American birders are the beneficiaries of a list maintained by The Institute for Bird Populations. The list is coordinated with the list of species maintained by the American Ornithological Society, and is updated at the same time. If a species is renamed, split or lumped, the codes will follow suit. So, for example, when the Western Scrub-jay was split into the California Scrub-jay and Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay, WESJ became CASJ and WOSJ.

There are also 6-letter codes that reflect a bird’s genus species, for those with a more scientific bent. So the American Robin has AMRO as its 4-letter code, and TURMIG, for Turdus migratorius, as its 6-letter code.

I’m glad that common names work just as well, as I prefer to stick with the shorter codes. (I can’t think of another group of animals where each species has a unique common name that everyone agrees on.)

You may notice a pattern to the abbreviations. In most cases, when a bird’s name has two parts (and many do), the code simply consists of the first two letters of each part. So an American Goldfinch is AMGO, a Lesser Goldfinch is LEGO, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch is LAGO.

That’s fine, but we begin to run into problems with longer names, such as  Blue Heron or Rough-legged Hawk. In these cases, it’s often the first letter of each name is used—GBHE and RLHA.

SandwichTern @Florida Keys 1jan08 LAH 972

Looking down the list, an attempt at consistency makes the codes easier to remember. Almost all “hawks” end in HA, for instance. But it’s the exceptions that cause headaches. Why is a Barred Hawk a BAHA, and a Gray Hawk a GRHA, but Harris’s Hawk is HASH? Did they just want to avoid a HAHA?

Surfbird_SealRockOR_20090923_LAH_2356And what happens when you have two (or more) bird families that start with the same two letters? How do we know the difference between, say, a spoonbill and a sparrow, or a  woodcreeper and a woodpecker? Well, things get a little messy. Most sparrows have SP at the end of their code—but so does the Roseate Spoonbill (ROSP). And some sparrows break the pattern, such as Sage Sparrow (SAGS) and Baird’s Sparrow (BAIS).

It comes down to simply remembering (or consulting a list), just as when learning irregular verbs or bizarre English spellings. Still, a few names are kind of fun. Some birds have very short names: RUFF, SORA, and SMEW are just what you’d expect. Yet CROW stands for Crested Owl, not one of the Corvids.

Willet_Morro Bay-CA_LAH_f7368There are also codes for some subspecies (useful for birds being considered for future splits) and common hybrids; a Western X Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid is WGWH. There are codes for when you can’t identify a bird all the way to species; UNDO is an unidentified dowitcher, UNWR is some sort of wren. I make good use of UEFL—it stands for Unidentified Empidonax Flycatcher.

They even have a code for being completely clueless—UNBI stands for Unidentified Bird!

Harris's Hawk_DesertMuseum-AZ_LAH_8418Still, it’s well worth learning some codes, especially for birds you’re likely to see on an outing. Bird banders and other ornithologists use them as a form of shorthand when writing down a species name, so why not the rest of us? If you’ve ever tried to keep a running list of birds seen on a fieldtrip, you’ll appreciate the usefulness of a unique abbreviation for each species. Too often I’ve been scribbling long names such as Brown-capped Rosy-finch or American Three-toed Woodpecker, and I miss the next three sightings. Of course, you could make up your own abbreviations, but using the standardized ones means that someone else can read your list, handy when comparing notes at the end of the day.

Barn Swallow @LakePueblo 20090523 LAH 196rI find that most of my birding friends know a smattering of codes—the already mentioned GBHE, ROPI, LEGO, and HOFI, plus HOSP (House Sparrow), MODO (Mourning Dove), and   (). They’re most useful for names with far too many letters—RTHA (Red-tailed Hawk) and RWBL (Red-winged Blackbird) are two I use frequently. On the other hand, I’ve never used AMCO for American Coot. There’s only one coot species around here, so there’s no need to get fancy.

Now that you know the answers to the two quiz questions above, why not try to figure out who’s who before looking at the answers. Here’s another little hint: look at the photos on this page.





  • ARLO, Arctic Loon
  • LEVI, Lesser Violetear
  • ROSA, Rock Sandpiper
  • WILL, Willet
  • GREG, Great Egret
  • CORA, Common Raven

Other Words:

  • MALL, Mallard
  • HOME, Hooded Merganser
  • LIMP, Limpkin
  • KILL, Killdeer
  • SURF, Surfbird
  • SAND, Sanderling
  • LIST, Little Stint
  • UNDO, unidentified Dowitcher
  • WILL, Willet
  • DOVE, Dovekie
  • LITE, Little Tern
  • COTE, Common Tern
  • SATE, Sandwich Tern
  • MASH, Manx Shearwater
  • GLIB, Glossy Ibis
  • HASH, Harris’s Hawk
  • SNOW, Snowy Owl
  • BARS, Barn Swallow
  • VEER, Veery
  • CORE, Common Redpoll
  • HASP, Harris’s Sparrow
  • LISP, Lincoln’s Sparrow

One thought on “Four Helpful Letters

  1. I’d forgotten about these codes that I encountered when watching a bird banding station, Wilson’s warbler was the common bird that day, and I still think of them as WIWAs. (Pronounced wee-wah)

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