GreatBirdPics proudly presents the Birder’s Illustrated Dictionary, which contains terms commonly used by birders along with links to valuable resources new birders may not be familiar with. Click on any bird picture to see more information about the shot; most of the birds named in the text are linked to a representative picture of that species. Every picture was submitted by members of GreatBirdPics.com (click HERE to learn more about our site).
The Birder’s Illustrated Dictionary is constantly being updated with new terms and resource links so check back often. Is there a birding term you use that’s not listed? Email me at email@example.com to suggest additions. The Birder’s Illustrated Dictionary does not include any bird anatomical terms. Perhaps later, after I figure out what the difference is between the lores and the fore-supercillium. Or what a covert is.
Special Thanks! Wikipedia was an invaluable resource when refining many of the definitions.
Click on a letter below to jump to entries that begin with that letter. Or just browse!
A as in American Avocet
ABA -American Birding Association. According to their WEBSITE, “The ABA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that provides leadership to birders by increasing their knowledge, skills, and enjoyment of birding. We are the only organization in North America that specifically caters to recreational birders. We also contribute to bird and bird habitat conservation through our varied programs.”
Accipiter – One of two types of hawk (see Buteo below). Accipiters live in woodland areas and prey on smaller birds. They have short, broad wings with long tails. There are three types of Accipiters in North America; Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. Cooper’s Hawks (see below) are often found terrorizing birds at backyard bird feeders.
Aerie (or eyrie) – A hawk, eagle or other large raptor’s nest high on a tree or cliff. The Prairie Falcon below was photographed in its Aerie on a cliff high on the face of a mountain at Lake Suguaro, Arizona.
Alpha Code for Bird Species – Birders have developed a four-letter code for each species of birds; they use these Alpha Codes when making notes about their observations, reporting sightings to others, and entering their eBird checklists. Sometimes they use them when calling out to others the birds they are seeing, as in, “I see a Modo over there,” where MODO refers to a Mourning Dove. If the species name is one word the alpha code is the first four letters of the name, i.e. Redhead=REDH. For species named with more than one word the four-letter code is the first two letters of the first word and the first two letters of the second word, i.e. Baltimore Oriole = BAOR. Exceptions do occur when the resulting four letter code is the same for two different species, in which case a modification is made to one of the Alpha Codes so it is unique. The Institute for Bird Populations created a PDF file of 2158 Alpha Codes for birds seen in North America and Central America. CLICK HERE to go to the list. Thanks to member HXQAJCW for the suggestion and link.
B as in Bluebird
Big Year – Birders set goals for the number of species they see during a year. Some try to find as many species as they can in one year – a Big Year. A Big Year could be for the state, country or world. Jeremy Dominguez set the record for the U.S.A. contiguous 48 states in 2020 by seeing 724 species in one year. Arjan Dwarshuis set the world record in 2016 by seeing 6,852 species! A film called The Big Year staring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson was made in 2011. It’s a comedy which shows the great lengths some birders go through to have a Big Year.
Bins or Binos – Short for binoculars.
Bird Club – Many states, counties and regions have formed bird clubs. These clubs are a great source of information about birding and often sponsor local bird hikes led by experienced birders. The ABA’s website (see above) has a list of state organizations and large regional bird clubs which can be found here.
Birds Are Real! – Perhaps you caught a segment on 60 Minutes on May 1, 2022 about the “Birds Aren’t Real” movement. In it three college kids promote their “conspiracy theory” that the government captured all the birds and then replaced them with robots that are spying on people! They go out and protest this government intrusion into our lives. You can read more about the 60 Minutes piece HERE. We here at GreatBirdPics firmly believe that Birds Are Real – no matter what the crazies on the other side say. To let everyone know that Birds Are Real I created a t-shirt to spread the word. Here I am in my Birds Are Real shirt:
So don’t be fooled by conspiracy theories to the contrary! Birds Are Real!
Blocking Mass – My brother Doug made this one up. We were commiserating about the slow spring migration and he blamed a “Blocking Mass.” He was describing a high pressure system up in Canada which prevented southerly winds from helping migrant birds fly north. I like Blocking Mass better.
Boreal – The boreal is a climatic area south of the Arctic. It is a cold, temperate region predominantly populated by taiga and forests of birch, poplar, and conifers. About 300 species of birds found in the U.S. breed in the boreal, including the White-crowned Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Rusty Blackbirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.
Buteo – One of two type of hawks (see Accipiter above). Buteos are medium to large broad-winged hawks. Outside of America they are called Buzzards. In America the most common Buteos are the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broadwinged Hawk, and the Swainson’s Hawk. Below is a Red-tailed Hawk in flight:
Bushwack – To travel off-trail in search of birds.
C as in Chestnut-sided Warbler
Calling Birds (1) – Birds will often sing, or CALL, to each other. One issues a call then one or more of the same species returns the call. Four Calling Birds is used in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Calling Birds (2) – Using a recording or a cell phone App to broadcast a bird’s call in order to entice a bird to show themselves. This practices is generally considered unethical. This could disturb the birds or disrupt their normal routine. It is particularly discouraged during breeding season when an amplified bird call could be interpreted by a bird as another invading their territory. This sign below was posted in Thailand.
Chase – To travel by car a distance in order to see a bird. Some birders will wake up early, review recent sightings to find birds they want to see, and then jump in their car and drive to the location it was last reported.
Checklist – Birders who record their sightings often use a checklist listing possible species. There are four major ways to classify bird species in the world; Birdlife International, eBird/Clements, International Ornithological Committee/Union (IOC), and Howard & Moore. In the U.S. birders either use the International Ornithological Committee (IOC)/ABA Checklist or the Clements Checklist. See below for more about the Clements Checklist. Each of these organizations take different approaches to bird classification, such as when one species should be separated into two different species (often done as a result of genetic analysis). If you would like to read a comparison of the four major checklists used world-wide CLICK HERE. Birders in the U.S. tend to either use Clements or IOC.
Citizen Science – Every time a birder submits an eBird checklist they are participating in Citizen Science. When they report the bird species and the number of each they observe they are contributing to a world-wide database about birds that scientists use as the basis of their research. Studies about bird migration habits, population size, and breeding locations all rely on Citizen Science.
Our species and subspecies taxonomy uses the Clements Checklist, a global bird taxonomy which follows regional authorities. In the New World, the Clements Checklist largely defers to the two AOS committees–the North American Classification Committee (NACC) and the South American Classification Committee (SACC)–with the goal of near-complete compliance….
Cornell University – Cornell University, located in Ithaca New York, is home to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Lab of Ornithology is recognized world-wide as a leader in bird research. The Lab hosts the eBird and All About Birds websites, which are invaluable tools for birders.
D as in Dickcissel
Diagnostic – One or more parts of a bird that help differentiate it from other similar birds. For example, the rufous auriculars (cheeks) of the Cape May Warbler below are “diagnostic” – no other warblers have this feature.
E as in Eared Grebe
eBird – The Cornell Lab produces and maintains this useful bird App and website. The Cornell Lab is associated with the Department of Ornithology at Cornell University, a premier school for the study of birds. I use eBird every time I go out birding. The user clicks the Start Checklist button and then enters how many of each species are observed (a list of all commonly seen birds within 20 sq km is provided). It does a great job of tracking all the birds I’ve seen, as it keeps an ongoing list of every Lifer and maintains every checklist entered (I’ve entered over 1,500 so far). The companion website ebird.org allows you to check your stats, revise your checklists (sometimes I have to go home and verify the species of a bird I’ve seen). By collating everyone’s eBird checklists (over 10,000 are submitted per day) everyone has access to bird sightings near and far. You can even sign up for email Alerts which send you reports of rare birds or birds you haven’t seen yet this year. I’m always amazed at the number of birders who DON’T use eBird – it is such a valuable tool.
Edge – The area where two different habitats meet. This could be where a forest ends along a shoreline, a meadow meets a stand of trees, or a marsh becomes a pond. The edge is always a good place to look for birds because you can find species from both habitats in that area – double the fun! I always walk slowly when approaching an edge; after walking through a forest, approaching a clearing, I stop before crossing the edge and peer around to see any birds foraging on either side of the edge. The area surrounding the parking lot at your local park is a good edge to bird. Below is a picture of an edge where the forest meets a mowed field in a park:
Endemic – Bird species which are only found in a defined geographic area. Many times the geographic area is defined as a country, however BirdLife International defines the location of endemic species as a geographical area regardless of political boundaries. Some field guides show a map highlighting the area in which each endemic bird can be found. See lists of endemic birds in Wikipedia HERE.
F as in Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Fallout – A Fallout occurs when a large group of migrating birds encounter a weather system that interrupts their flight, causing them to land. In these cases many birds can be found in a relatively limited area.
Field Guide – A book with illustrations, descriptions, range maps, and/or descriptive features of birds. Invaluable when learning about and identifying birds. See Peterson Field Guides and Sibley, Guide to Birds.
First of Year (FOY) – Each January 1st resets the number of bird species found for the year for every birder. Each species encountered after December 31st is therefore a FOY. Some birders joke that the only time the commonplace House Sparrow is welcomed is when it’s their FOY.
Flush – To scare hidden birds out into the open. Usually happens when you are walking along and all of a sudden one or more birds you didn’t know were even there suddenly fly up and away from you. Here’s a picture of a Blue-winged Teal that we flushed out of a marsh as we approached.
G as in Golden-crowned Kinglet
Good Bird – When someone reports that they saw a rare species or a species which is unusual for its location, others might refer to it as a “Good Bird.” For example member JoanCamp said she had seen a Wild Turkey in her backyard (unusual for a suburban area), to which I responded, “Good Bird!” Or if I went out on a bird walk and reported seeing a rare Nelson’s Sparrow, someone might say, “That’s a Good Bird!”
GreatBirdPics.com – A website created to promote bird photography. You can learn more about GreatBirdPics.com HERE.
GreatBirdPics Institute – (GBPI – pronounced “gippy”) – A fictional group which occasionally publishes reports such as The Field Guide to Birders. All done in fun.
H as in Helmeted Friarbird
Hotspot – An area identified by birders as being noteworthy for the birds found there. Users can submit suggested areas to become eBird Hotspots. If approved the Hotspot is included with other Hotspots and can be searched on eBird HERE.
Hunkered Down – Oftentimes a bird will be spotted in a bush or grasses and then suddenly drop down and become motionless. Birders say that the bird is “hunkered down.” Also a bird in plain sight might be “hunkered down” in poor weather – in this case the bird compacts its body into as small as space as possible. In the picture below a Mourning Dove is “hunkered down” on a cold January morning.
I as in Indochinese Roller
Irruption – An unexpected movement of one of more bird species to the south. The cause for the movement is sometimes not known but is usually due to food supply. Irruptions can occur in many different species from finches to owls. For example in the fall of 2020 there was an irruption of Red and White Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks in and around Illinois. These species were not normally found in that area.
People love Snowy Owls and their irruptions and associated sightings end up in the news. There was a major irruption of Snowy Owls in 2013-14 when they were spotted as far south as Florida! Scientists believe that Snowy Owl irruption’s are caused by TOO MUCH food! An abundance of prey (lemmings, voles and other prey) help to create conditions for a large, successful breeding season.
J as in Jabiru
K as in Keel-billed Toucan
L as in Lineated Woodpecker
Leaf bird – Karen and I rounded a bend and spotted something that looked like a bird up in a tree. We simultaneously raised our binos and declared, “Leaf Bird!” It was a leaf but it fooled us into thinking it was a bird. Similar to Rock Bird and Stick Bird. Below is what we saw and without and with our binos:
LBJ – Short for “Little Brown Job” which is a nondescript brown sparrow. Many sparrows are hard to identify when viewed from a distance – they all look similar. A birder might say, “I think there’s a White-crowned Sparrow in the middle of that group of LBJs.”
Lek – An area where animals gather to perform courtship displays and competitive behaviors to attract a mate. Although usually associated with birds such as the Greater Sage-Grouse and Prairie-Chicken there are some mammals, fish, and insects that also use leks. The lek the Greater Prairie-Chickens we observed in Nebraska was a meadow with short grasses; it had been used for many years. CLICK HERE to read about our trip to see Prairie-Chickens on a lek. Below is a picture of the lek in the early light – perhaps you can spot a couple of the Prairie-Chickens in it:
Leucism – A loss of pigmentation in the feathers of a bird (and in other animal’s fur or skin). This results in white patches on a bird. Below are a couple of pictures of a Canada Goose by member Birder2011 showing leucism.
Lifer –The very first time a birder sees a new species it is referred to as a “Lifer.” Many birders count the number of Lifers they have – I have 1,113 Lifers (so far). Many experienced birders will go out of their way to find a Lifer because to some, the number of Lifers they have seen is a measure of their expertise as a birder. According to eBird 10,517 species of birds have been observed in the world; Peter Kaestner has seen more than any other birder with 9,294 Lifers.
County Lifer/State Lifer – Birders often keep track of the number of Lifers they have in different areas. They count the number of Lifers they’ve seen in the county they live in, or the state they live in. eBird keeps these stats for each member; others use their own recording system.
M as in Montezuma Oropendola
Merlin – Cornell’s Merlin App has three main purposes. First, by entering information about an unknown bird (such as basic colors, where seen) Merlin will provide a list of possible species. Second, Explore Birds lets you look up photos and identification cues about species in your area of the world. Finally, Merlin can be used to identify a picture of a bird you have taken. The image is entered in Merlin, along with the location and date observed, and Merlin uses a sophisticated program (similar to face recognition) to identify the species. Really!
Migration – Many birds fly long distances between their breeding areas in the and their non-breeding habitats. In the northern hemisphere many migrant breeding areas stretch from Canada all the way above the Arctic Circle. Birds tend to migrate to the north in the spring and to the south in the fall (the opposite directions in the Southern Hemisphere). The Arctic Tern (below) migrates over 44,000 miles each year, breeding in the Arctic and migrating to Antartica.
Migrants – Birders refer to birds that migrate as Migrants. Often used in conversation as in, “Seen any Spring Migrants yet?”
Mucking Boots – Rubberized boots worn when tracking birds down in wet areas.
Murmuration – Murmuration is often associated with large flocks of Starlings when they gather together in the winter months. These flocks rise up almost as one, swirling and turning together before settling back down. The term is refers with the murmur sound emanating from all the wings beating together. The act of murmuration is thought to confuse predators, making it difficult to pick out one individual bird as prey. Other birds, like the Snow Goose, also exhibit murmuration characteristics as in the picture below:
N as in Nanday Parakeet
Nemesis Bird – A bird species a birder has been searching for numerous times and has had great difficulty in finding. My Nemesis Bird is a Cackling Goose (no picture available – because I have found one yet!). I have looked at thousands and thousands of Canada Geese in search of just one Cackling Goose in their midst. Frankly, I’m tired of looking at Canada Geese.
O as in Ovenbird
Ornithology – The science and study of birds.
Ornithologist – One who studies birds professionally and has an advanced degree in the science and study of birds.
P as in Phainopepla
Passerine – More than half of all birds, including all songbirds, are classified as Passerines. The toes on these birds are designed to facilitate perching.
Patagonia Picnic Table Effect – There is a concrete picnic table at a rest stop on State Route 82 just outside of Patagonia, Arizona. Rumor has it some birders stopped by there about 50 years ago and spotted a rare bird and told their friends. They stopped at the picnic table and spotted some more rare birds. They told their friends, who spotted more birds … a 2011 bulletin from the National Wildlife Refuge Association summed it up: “One good bird attracts birders, who often discover yet another good bird, which brings more birders, ad infinitum.”
A recent analysis of rare bird sightings compiled by a researcher at Oregon State University busts this myth, finding that sighting a rare bird in a new area does not lead to more rare bird sightings by all the birders that flock there. Nonetheless, it’s now a part of birding lore – and a fun one, at that! Here’s a picture of GreatBirdPics’ founder Mike birding on the picnic table.
Patch – A spot a birder regularly visits to observe birds. I consider my backyard my Patch. Others have a favorite park or forest preserve they consider their Patch.
Peeps – The smaller sandpiper species are collectively called Peeps (in the Old World they are known as Stints). As there is no “official” classification of Peeps, birders refer a variety of species as Peeps. Those that are most commonly referred to as Peeps include: Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper.
Pelagic Birds – Refers to any bird species that spends a significant amount of time on or soaring over water. These birds can be found hundreds of miles out to sea, often soaring for hours at a time. They only come to land when it is time to breed. Pronounced “puh-LAA-jic” and rhymes with magic. Pelagic birds include the Red-billed Tropicbird, Fluttering Shearwater, Northern Giant Petral, Wandering Albatross and Magnificent Frigatebird.
Pelagic Tour – Birders arrange for boats to take them out into a large body of water in search of Pelagic Birds (see above). Since these birds rarely land on the ground the only way to see them is to go where they are – away from the mainland. Some groups define a pelagic tour as one that travels at least two miles away from the shore. Even though it’s generally acknowledged that pelagic birds are ocean-dwellers, birding tours which are arranged on large inland bodies of water, like Lake Michigan, are still called Pelagic Tours.
Peterson Field Guides – One of several widely-used field guides to aid in the identification of birds. First published in 1934 by noted ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, these books were among the first field guides that focused on birds’ visual characteristics for easy identification (rather than technical/scientific descriptions as in earlier field guides). Published by Houghton-Mifflin, Peterson Field Guides are available for a wide variety of topics including mammals, insects, rocks and minerals, and weather phenomena.
Pish – A sound made by birders to attract nearby birds into view. “Pishhhhh. Pishhhhhh.”
Q as in Gambel’s Quail
R as in Red-Legged Honeycreeper
S as in Siamese Fireback
Scope – Birders often obtain a scope to observe far-off birds. This is most useful when viewing shorebirds or other waterfowl that don’t move as often as Passerines. A helpful site when purchasing a scope is the Audubon Guide to Scopes.
Shorebird – A term to refer to a wide variety of birds that live in coastal or wetland areas. These birds tend to have large feet, which prevent them from sinking into the wet ground, and forage along the shoreline. Shorebirds include Sandpipers, Plovers, Jacanas, Oystercaters, and Stilts.
Sibley, The Guide to Birds – David Allen Sibley wrote and illustrated this popular field guide. Each of the 810 bird species in the field guide has several illustrations including birds in flight. My go-to Field Guide.
Snowbird – Someone who travels south for the winter and stays there an extended period of time there.
Spark Bird – The bird that helped “spark” your interest in birding. According to member Joancamp, “It defined the ‘pivotal moment when your world was changed’ and there’s no way you’re ever going back… Mine was a Downey Woodpecker in the spring of 1979… Hence my License Plate: Downy79.” What was your spark bird?
Stints – See “Peeps” above.
T as in Trinidad Motmot
Target Bird – Experienced birders often set out in search of a specific species – their “target.” Perhaps they’ve never seen this species before (see Lifer), or it’s a favorite warbler they’ve seen every spring during migration and can’t wait to see another one, or it’s a common species they have yet to see that year (see FOY/First of Year). The rare appearance of a Western Tanager in mid-state Illinois made it a Target Bird for many birders in a three-state area. Picture below by Emil Baumbach.
Tick – A tick is a tiny insect that is found in most places birds are found (ducks and turkeys are particularly fond of eating ticks). Just about every birder finds a tick or two each year on them. Ticks can drop down from the trees as you walk down a path or hop on your trousers as you walk through a field. At the end of each bird walk brush off your clothing, check your hair, and do the same for your partner. If you do find any ticks on your clothes brush them off. Once you get home remove your clothes and do a full body search once again and put your clothes in the wash. Ticks are tricky little things and can show up even a day or two after an outing. If you do find a tick that has attached itself to you, don’t panic – they can be safely and easily removed. Here’s a link to the CDC’s website on tick removal.
Twitcher – A birder who will travel great distances in order to find a bird so they can add it as a Lifer or add it to their State/County List. For instance we were Twitchers when we traveled two states away to see a King Eider for a Lifer. CLICK HERE to read about our adventure that day. Here’s another story about the Twitchers that came from all over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin to see a Great Kiskadee in Illinois. It was a Lifer for many and a State bird for all (it had never been reported in Illinois before). Below are some of the Twitchers looking for the Great Kiskadee.
U as in Ultramarine Flycatcher
V as in Venezualian Troupial
Vagrant – A bird that has been found far outside of its normal range. The “vagrant” Barnacle Goose below was found in Hammond, Indiana which is far from its typical range in the North Sea between Greenland and Norway.
W as in White-winged Dove
Warbler – Small Passerine Songbird which migrates. There are 119 New World species of warblers. They are often very colorful which makes them a favorite of many birders. Below is a Blackburnian Warbler:
Warbler Neck – During migration some warblers like to feed high up in the canopy and the only way to see them is to crane your neck and look up. Prolonged periods of looking up can be hard on your neck, causing “Warbler Neck”, a temporary soreness. Below is a group of birders starting to get “Warbler Neck”:
Whiffling – Some birds have the ability to fly upside-down, which is called Whiffling. Whiffling is done as part of a courtship routine, to rapidly de-accelerate, or for defensive purposes. CLICK HERE to read about why the Cooper’s Hawk below is Whiffling.
X as in FoX Sparrow
Y as in Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Yard Bird – When a birder sees an unusual bird or Lifer (see above) on or flying over their own property it is called a Yard Bird. When an ebird user uses their own property as a Personal Hotspot eBird totals how many Yard Birds they have seen. For example I have 65 Yard Birds, or 65 different bird species seen in or flying over my property.