American Birding Association Four-Letter Codes
Four-letter codes are commonly (and too often incorrectly) used as a short-hand way to write a bird name. Two different sets of codes are in use. The first codes were created by the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) for use by bird banders in submitting data; consequently the codes are frequently referred to as “banding codes”. A slightly different set of codes has been published by the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP).
The basic codes were derived from a simple set of rules for reducing a name to four letters. A major problem is that the rules can create “collisions”; cases where two (or more) different names reduce to the same four letters. In these cases, different codes had to be created ad hoc. Unfortunately, if you want to use the codes, you simply must memorize the special cases; there is no way around it. Worse, the BBL and IBP code sets differ in some of these ad hoc codes.
Here is a summary of the basic rules:
- If the name is one word, the code is the first four letters.
DICK Dickcissel SORA Sora
- If the name is two unhyphenated words, the code is the first two letters of each word.
MODO Mourning Dove AMRO American Robin
- If the name is two words, with the last word hyphenated, the code is the first two letters of the first word and the first letter of each part of the hyphenation.
EASO Eastern Screech-Owl EAWP Eastern Wood-Pewee
- If the name is two words, with the first word hyphenated, or simply three words,
the first two letters of the code are the first letter of each of the first two parts of the hyphenation or of each of the first two words,
and the second two letters of the code are the first two letters of the last word, or the third part of the hyphenation.
GCFL Great Crested Flycatcher GTGR Great-tailed Grackle RTHU Ruby-throated Hummingbird RTHA Red-tailed Hawk CWWI Chuck-will's-widow
- If the name has four parts, either separate words or hyphenated parts, the code is the first letter of each part
BCNH Black-crowned Night-Heron NRWS Northern Rough-winged Swallow
A footnote: The above rules describe how today's BBL codes were generated. I went back and read the 1978 paper by Klimkiewicz and Robbins where the first rules for banding codes were published, and those rules are slightly different. However, nomenclature was quite different then as well. I don't know the source of today's rules.
There are no published rules for resolving collisions in the BBL system, but I have observed the patterns below. First, note that the basic rules for two- or three-word names divide the name into a “first name” and “last name”, or specific name and group name, and the specific name always gets two letters and the group name two letters. Most of the ad hoc cases deviate from this equal division between specific name and group name.
- The most common way of resolving a collision is to take three letters from the specific name and only one letter from the group name. For example, Carolina Wren, Cactus Wren, and Canyon Wren all reduce to CAWR, so unique codes were obtained by taking three letters from the specific name and only the W from Wren: CARW, CACW, and CANW.
- When the above rule still does not provide unique codes, then the code may be made by using only one letter from the specific name and three letters from the group name. For example, Northern Shoveler and Northern Shrike both reduce to NOSH by the basic rules, or NORS by the above rule, so the actual codes are NSHO and NSHR.
- If both of the above rules still fail to create unique codes, another possibility is to use the first and last letters of the specific name instead of the first two letters. Thus, the codes for Barred Owl and Barn Owl are BDOW and BNOW.
- The “last letter” approach is also used in some four-word names. For example, Black-throated Green Warbler is BTNW and Black-throated Gray Warbler is BTYW, using the last letter of the distinguishing word.
- There are some cases that don't fit any of these rules, for example BRNG for Barnacle Goose and BAGO for Barrow's Goldeneye.
When codes collide, usually all of the involved species take ad hoc codes. But in some cases where one species is rare or has a limited distribution, and the other is commoner or more widely distributed, the ad hoc code may be only used for the less common species. This is illustrated by the last example above, where Barrow's Goldeneye keeps the basic code BAGO even though it could be confused with Barnacle Goose, which gets an ad hoc code.
Some specific problems with the BBL codes relate to their primary purpose for banding. For some species, no official code is provided. For example, the BBL does not oversee banding of gallinaceous birds, so it provides no code for them. Also, they tend to retain established codes rather than update them as nomenclature changes. For example, they retain CAGO for Canada Goose even though Cackling Goose is now recognized as a species. And sometimes they provide only specific codes for recognizable forms rather than an over-all code for a species. For example, they have several codes for various forms of Snow Goose, but SNGO is not an official code for the species. The codes from the IBP address these problems.
As you can see, there are many reasons not to use these codes. The foremost reason is that they are a barrier to communication with people who do not know the codes. Another reason is that you are likely to make mistakes, and years later when you refer back to your notes you may find yourself unsure which species you actually meant. Nevertheless, you can't stop people from using the codes so it's best to try to learn them. I suggest that the most appropriate use of the codes is for quick taking of field notes that you will transcribe before you forget what you meant. If you are already a user of the codes, I predict that if you study the table carefully, you will discover at least a couple of species for which you've been using the wrong codes.
The table below lists a suggested code for each species that might be recorded in the Carolinas. This code is either the BBL code; or if none is provided, the IBP code. If the code is an ad hoc code rather than one that comes from application of the basic rules, there is an asterisk in the Exception column. If the IBP ad hoc code differs from the one from BBL, it is listed in the Alt. code column. For ad hoc codes, the reason that the basic code cannot be used is explained in the Conflict with column. The code for the conflicting species is also given there.
Both BBL and IBP list numerous codes for recognizable forms other than species. A few of these are listed in a second table; see the original sources for others.
|Name||Exception||Code||Alt. Code||Conflict with||Comment|
|Greater White-fronted Goose||GWFG|
|Snow Goose||SNGO||BBL uses specific codes for different forms of Snow Goose|
|Brant||BRAN||BBL uses ATBR for Atlantic Brant|
|Barnacle Goose||*||BRNG||BARG||Barrow's Goldeneye BAGO|
|Cackling Goose||*||CACG||Canada Goose CANG|
|Canada Goose||*||CAGO||CANG||Cackling Goose CACG|
|Trumpeter Swan||*||TRUS||Tree Swallow TRES|
|Tundra Swan||TUSW||BBL uses WHSW for Whistling Swan|
|American Black Duck||ABDU|
|Northern Shoveler||*||NSHO||Northern Shrike NSHR|
|Green-winged Teal||GWTE||BBL uses AGWT for American Green-winged Teal|
|Harlequin Duck||*||HARD||HADU||Hawaiian Duck HAWD|
|Northern Bobwhite||NOBO||BBL provides no codes for gallinaceous birds|
|Ring-necked Pheasant||*||RNEP||Red-necked Phalarope RNPH||BBL provides no codes for gallinaceous birds|
|Ruffed Grouse||RUGR||BBL provides no codes for gallinaceous birds|
|Wild Turkey||WITU||BBL provides no codes for gallinaceous birds|
|Herald Petrel||HEPE||BBL provides no code|
|Fea's Petrel||FEPE||BBL provides no code|
|Bermuda Petrel||BEPE||BBL provides no code|
|Cape Verde Shearwater||CVSH||BBL provides no code|
|European Storm-Petrel||EUSP||BBL provides no code|
|Black-bellied Storm-Petrel||BBSP||BBL provides no code|
|Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel||*||SSTP||Swamp Sparrow SWSP||BBL provides no code|
|Leach's Storm-Petrel||*||LHSP||LESP||Least Storm-Petrel LTSP|
|Band-rumped Storm-Petrel||*||BANP||BSTP||Brewer's Sparrow BRSP|
|American White Pelican||AWPE|
|Great Blue Heron||GBHE|
|Little Blue Heron||LBHE|
|Common Gallinule||COGA||Recently split from Common Moorhen (COMO).|
|Mountain Plover||MOPL||Formerly MOUP because of conflict with Mongolian Plover, which is now called Lesser Sand-Plover|
|Spotted Redshank||SPRE||BBL provides no code|
|Eskimo Curlew||ESCU||BBL provides no code|
|Black-tailed Godwit||*||BLAG||BTGD||Bar-tailed Godwit BARG|
|Bar-tailed Godwit||*||BARG||BTGO||Black-tailed Godwit BTGO|
|Little Stint||LIST||BBL provides no code|
|Sharp-tailed Sandpiper||*||SHAS||SPTS||Stilt Sandpiper STSA|
|Wilson's Snipe||WISN||Formerly COSN for Common Snipe|
|Black-tailed Gull||BTGU||Band-tailed Gull BTGU (now called Belcher's Gull)|
|Herring Gull||*||HERG||Heermann's Gull HEEG|
|Yellow-legged Gull||YLGU||BBL provides no code|
|Lesser Black-backed Gull||LBBG|
|Great Black-backed Gull||GBBG|
|Roseate Tern||*||ROST||Royal Tern ROYT|
|Royal Tern||*||ROYT||Roseate Tern ROST|
|South Polar Skua||SPSK|
|Eurasian Collared-Dove||*||ECDO||EUCD||ECDO does not follow the rules for forming a code|
|Barn Owl||*||BNOW||BANO||Barred Owl BDOW|
|Great Horned Owl||GHOW|
|Barred Owl||*||BDOW||BADO||Barn Owl BNOW|
|Northern Saw-whet Owl||NSWO|
|Eastern Whip-poor-will||EWPW||Formerly WPWI before the qualifier “Eastern” was added.|
|Green Violetear||*||GVIO||GREV||Gray Vireo GRVI||Formerly GRVE before the hyphen was removed from “Violet-ear”.|
|Green-breasted Mango||*||GREM||GNBM||Gray-breasted Martin GBMA|
|Broad-billed Hummingbird||*||BBLH||BBIH||Buff-bellied Hummingbird BUFH|
|Buff-bellied Hummingbird||*||BUFH||BBEH||Broad-billed Hummingbird BBLH|
|Blue-throated Hummingbird||*||BLUH||BTHH||Broad-tailed Hummingbird BTLH|
|Broad-tailed Hummingbird||*||BTLH||BTAH||Blue-throated Hummingbird BLUH|
|Northern Flicker||NOFL||BBL uses YSFL for Yellow-shafted Flicker|
|Great Crested Flycatcher||GCFL|
|Gray Kingbird||*||GRAK||Great Kiskadee GKIS, Green Kingfisher GKIN|
|Northern Shrike||*||NSHR||Northern Shoveler NSHO|
|Tree Swallow||*||TRES||Trumpeter Swan TRUS|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||NRWS|
|Bank Swallow||*||BANS||Barn Swallow BARS, Bahama Swallow BAHS|
|Barn Swallow||*||BARS||Bank Swallow BANS, Bahama Swallow BAHS|
|Carolina Wren||*||CARW||Canyon Wren CANW, Cactus Wren CACW|
|Cedar Waxwing||*||CEDW||Cerulean Warbler CERW|
|Bachman's Warbler||BAWA||BBL provides no code|
|Yellow Warbler||YEWA||Formerly YWAR because of conflict with Yellow Wagtail (now called Eastern Yellow Wagtail)|
|Magnolia Warbler||MAWA||MacGillivray's Warbler MGWA|
|Cape May Warbler||CMWA|
|Black-throated Blue Warbler||BTBW|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||*||BTYW||Black-throated Green Warbler BTNW|
|Black-throated Green Warbler||*||BTNW||Black-throated Gray Warbler BTYW|
|Blackburnian Warbler||*||BLBW||Blackpoll Warbler BLPW|
|Prairie Warbler||*||PRAW||Prothonotary Warbler PROW|
|Palm Warbler||PAWA||BBL uses YPWA for Yellow Palm Warbler and WPWA for Western Palm Warbler|
|Blackpoll Warbler||*||BLPW||Blackburnian Warbler BLBW|
|Cerulean Warbler||*||CERW||Cedar Waxwing CEDW|
|Prothonotary Warbler||*||PROW||Prairie Warbler PRAW|
|Connecticut Warbler||*||CONW||Colima Warbler COLW|
|MacGillivray's Warbler||*||MGWA||Magnolia Warbler MAWA|
|Bachman's Sparrow||*||BACS||Baird's Sparrow BAIS|
|American Tree Sparrow||ATSP|
|Lark Bunting||*||LARB||Lazuli Bunting LAZB|
|Savannah Sparrow||*||SAVS||Sage Sparrow SAGS, Saltmarsh Sparrow SALS|
|Le Conte's Sparrow||LCSP|
|Nelson's Sparrow||NESP||Formerly NSTS for Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow|
|Saltmarsh Sparrow||*||SALS||Sage Sparrow SAGS, Savannah Sparrow SAVS||Formerly SSTS for Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow|
|Swamp Sparrow||SWSP||Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel SSTP|
|Dark-eyed Junco||DEJU||BBL uses SCJU for Slate-colored Junco|
|Lazuli Bunting||*||LAZB||Lark Bunting LARB|
The table below lists a sample of codes that are defined for forms that are not species. See the original sources for others.
|Blue Greater Snow Goose||BGSG|
|Lesser Snow Goose (intermediate phase)||SBGI|
|Lesser Snow Goose (white phase)||LSGO|
|Greater Snow Goose||GSGO|
|Lesser Snow Goose (blue phase)||BLGO|
|Eurasian Green-winged Teal||EGWT|
|Great White Heron||GWHE|