The Bird Nerd Dictionary

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Have you ever asked someone for help identifying a bird or a behaviour you saw one exhibit and suddenly feel like you've slipped into an underground world? They are talking about wing bands and mobbing behaviour, bushwhacking and butter butts! What is going on? There is urban slang, and then there is birder slang. It's an exclusive club, welcome. It is really not all as frightening as it sounds, the mention of usual suspects, mobbing, chasing, streaking and eye rings sounds a little more sinister than it's cracked up to be. 

Let's break down some of these common terms in the bird world. Perhaps you have heard of the urban dictionary, consider this the bird nerd dictionary. Use this to arm yourself with the right slang to hang with the cool kids- the birders, of course. 

Identification Terms

Eye Rings: a pale ring of feathers encircling the eye. It is a very narrow ring which may not be very clear from a greater distance. 

Nashville Warblers have eye-rings as a notable ID factor 

Streaking: don't panic, we are all keeping our clothes on. Streaking is a term used in bird identification to describe a streaking pattern in plumage. You may say "it had streaking along its chest". Sparrows and many other birds display streaking. 

Check out all of the streaking on this Pine Siskin! 

Coverts: alas, this is not a secret mission. Covert feathers are a layer of non-flight feathers. They protect the quill of the flight feathers. 

Wing Bars: Not to worry, this isn’t any sort of drink serving establishment. Bird wings often provide some key ID information in the form of the presence of absence of wing bars. These are contrasting, usually pale, lines across the wings of the bird. Many species groups such as sparrows and warblers can be divided into the have or have nots - those that exhibit wing bars and those that do not. Think of it like bird tattoos, distinctive marks that can help you identify a particular species! 

Can you spot the wing bars on this Pine Warbler?

Behavioural and General Terms

Mobbing: now in this type of mob activity, most make it out unscathed. Mobbing refers to a behaviour that birds engage in to defend themselves or their young from predators. They will emit loud alarm calls and dive at the predator. This usually starts as one or two individuals but can escalate to a group of birds mobbing a single predator. Mobbing behaviour tends to be strongest during nesting season, when young birds or nests are at risk. 

A Red-Winged blackbird mobbing a Great Blue Heron. Photo by Larry Durkee and shared in our Ontario Birds by WBU Barrie and WBU Newmarket community.  

Usual suspects: no one is on trial, this is a term that some birders use to describe birds in an area that you would usually expect to see each time you go there. Used in a sentence: Did you see anything good at the conservation area today? Nah, just the usual suspects. 

Drumming: ever listen to the bird band? There is the morning chorus every morning, but birds also drum! Drumming is actually a form of communication used by woodpeckers. They use their beak to strike a hard surface multiple times per second. The pattern of their “Drum” including the number of beats per roll and the gap between rolls is specific to each species. This is typically territorial behaviour, with males drumming more often than females. 

Of course there are many more bird terms to be added to this bird nerd dictionary, perhaps it will be an ongoing project. This collection of terms itself may have you believe that birders are a hardcore, unwelcoming group. Just the opposite is true! We love bringing a sense of humour and helping you all in your journey to learn more about birds, whether you are an expert or beginner. If you found this blog cheeky or helpful, please read another blog we did about birder terminology called Lifers, Bins and Twitchers: A Guide to Birdwatching Lingo. You will be sounding like an expert in no time at all! 

I hope you see more than the usual suspects this spring and avoid getting mobbed out there! 
Happy Spring! 



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