Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, September 19, 2011

Alphabet Soup

Tree Swallow

(Transcript of For the Birds for September 21, 2011)

Back in 1994, when my first book came out, my publishers asked if I wanted to go to the ABA convention in California. I was thrilled! The American Birding Association! But no—they were asking me to attend the American Booksellers Association meeting.

So very many things in modern life are attached to acronyms, and so many different things share the same acronyms, that rather than expediting communication, they slow it down. Jargon and acronyms play an important role in the workplace, and couples often develop little bits of shorthand that are perfectly clear to them but not intended to communicate to a wider audience. Some friends of mine used to have a little code they’d use at a party or family gathering when they were caught in a conversation they couldn’t escape. One or the other would say softly to the other, “FMD,” which stood for “Frankly, my dear,” a cryptic way of saying they didn’t give a damn. Secret codes may be fun for people in the know, but they’re irritatingly mystifying for people outside that inner circle.

Long ago, when the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s Bird Banding Lab started computerizing banding data, they developed a system of 4-letter codes for every North American bird that can be banded. These banding codes were never intended to be used for any purpose except straightforward data entry. But in the past several years, birders have started using them instead of typing out the whole bird names on birding forums and even in some books. Unlike in other biological sciences, American ornithologists worked tirelessly to standardize avian common names, specifically to make communication about birds clear. These four-letter banding codes, when misused, are a huge step backward.

Most of the codes are fairly straightforward. If a bird’s name is a single word, as with the Sora, Dunlin, or Gadwall, the first four letters of its name are used. If its name has two words, the first two letters of each word are used. It gets a little trickier with names with three words, depending on whether and where a hyphen is used. But the trickiest of all are where two different birds would have the same banding code if the rules were strictly applied. In these cases, a new, unambiguous code was made for each of the birds.

Unfortunately, some bird names have changed since the original banding codes were devised, and some birds are now being banded in the US or Canada that weren’t found here earlier, causing an unexpected ambiguity. The code for Yellow-rumped Warblers banded in our area is MYWA, because the code was devised before Myrtle Warblers and Audubon’s Warblers were lumped into a single species.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Banding codes are exceptionally hard to memorize because of the exceptions. This summer one of the premier banders in Wisconsin was banding Tree Swallow nestlings, and started to write TRSW as the abbreviation for them, but saw in his record book that the code was actually TRES.

Tree Swallow nest

He and I both racked our brains trying to figure out what other species started out with the same letters. Finally I looked it up, and it turned out to be a bird he’s banded in Wisconsin, the Trumpeter Swan.

Trumpeter Swan

I figure if bird banders can’t keep the letters straight, I’m not going to even try. If I start banding birds myself, I’ll look them up in the banding manual or make a cheat sheet. There’s so much important information and new discoveries about birds to fill my brain with—substantial knowledge that is far more nourishing than alphabet soup.

Mourning Dove