RFI Bird species codes

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: RFI Bird species codes
From: David James <>
Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2012 14:24:14 -0700 (PDT)
Hi Martin,
(...following Alan Richard's reply with some overlap and some differences....) 
Sorry I don't have a file to send you. I don't know of the national system you 
refer to. However, I have used a four-letter acronym code for Australian birds 
for about 25 years. 
When I was in North America for a few years in mid 80s I learnt of a quite 
formal and official 4-letter acronym code that was widely used there. It was 
based on some very simple rules that related to the basic principles of bird 
names. Bird names mostly have two parts, a descriptor followed by a group name, 
but sometimes there is only one name. Sometimes there are two words to one or 
both parts of the name. The rule divides the acronym evenly between the two 
parts of the name. Hyphens are treated as spaces (i.e. hyphenated words are 
treated as two words); case is ignored (some of these might be my own rules?). 
If there is one word in a part of the name then the first two letters of that 
word are used. If there are 2 words in a part then the first letter of each 
word is used. The importance of the rules is that it should be possible to work 
backwards from an unfamiliar acronym, unambiguously to a single species.  
Acronyms were used in Australia at that time, but there was little consistency. 
BFCS for Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike conforms to those rules from America. YFH or 
YFHE for Yellow-faced Honeyeater did not conform. It would be YFHO. 
Black-shouldered Kite is not BSKT (pronounced 'biscuit') but BSKI.
Mistletoebird is one word (someone decided to remove the space) so it is MIST, 
Malleefowl MALL, Galah GALA, ROCK, PILO, FERN, SCRU, etc.
In 1989 (I think) I typed up all the acronyms according to the American rules 
in a spreadsheet which I no longer have. It was based on the 1975 checklists 
(Condon, Schodde) and the 1977 list or recommended English names, so now it 
would be 2 or 3 checklists out of date. I was dismayed to find quite a lot of 
Emu is EMU, not four letters, trivial these days but troubling for some 
computer programs back then.
Some things go against the grain. Fairy-wrens are FW, but Scrubwrens, 
Grasswrens and Thronbills are SC, GR and TH (e.g. WBSC and BLGR)
Duplicates are out of control (I can't remember them all just now but here are 
most of them):
WBWO: White-breasted and White-browed Woodswallows
WBRO: White-breasted and White-browed Robins
BHHO: Brown-headed and Black-headed Honeyeaters
BBHO: Brown-backed and Bar-breasted Honeyeaters
BBBQ: Buff-breasted and Black-breasted Button-quails
YTHO: Yellow-throated, Yellow-tufted and Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters
MAHO: Mangrove and Macleay's Honeyeaters
STSA: Sharp-tailed and Stilt Sandpipers
STSH: Short-tailed and Streaked Shearwaters
KEPE: Kerguelan and Kermadec Petrels
MAPE: Macaroni and Magellanic Penguins (I've not yet found this one a bother)
BLPE: Black and Blue Petrels (that's 2 petrels, not a single bruised one)
LBCO: Little-black Cormorant, Long-billed Corella
GRFA: Grey Fantail, Grey Falcon
MALA: Masked Lapwing, Magpie-lark
RNPH: Red-necked Phalarope, Ring-necked Pheasant (no duplicate now that the 
later is COPH, but the only duplicate I was aware of in North America).
MALA is the most common clash followed by GRFA, most others are usually not 
I've not found a simple rule to sort out the clashes, and have usually ignored 
most of them because of the location. For Masked Lapwing and Magpie-lark I have 
used MALAP and MALAR (substituting the first non-conflicting letters in the 
group part; i.e. using the first non conflicting letters whilst still 
restricting it to 4 letters). However for BBBQ and most others the rule needs 
to be applied to the descriptor part. It doesn't work at all well for YTHO: 
(YHHO YUHO and YIHO? – who could ever figure out what those are from a field 
note book?). I do like the old bushies’ name Cranky Fanny... Nevertheless, to 
resolve GRFA I have fallen into the habit of using GRFAN (5 letters) all the 
time and “***GREY FALCON!” about 5 times. However, the conflicts are many and I 
have found no simple rule to resolve them all. It's a nuisance that Long-billed 
Corellas are so widely established these days. 
Changes to English names potentially render the code suddenly out-dated, and 
without recognition of the code as a standard, those who change English names 
do damage that they are unaware of. Most importantly, the decision to remove 
hyphens (See the IOC list) can change so much (e.g. if Cuckoo-shrike becomes 
Cuckooshrike then BFCS becomes BFCO, which then clashes with Black-faced 
Cormorant; BBBQ and BBBQ become BBBU and create a 3-way clash with 
This 4-letter code has saved maybe millions of letters in my note books, and 
therefore lots of time and space and books, and I keep using it despite all the 
faults. However, I have never used it in a data base situation. I've often 
given my notes to others to transcribe to Atlas sheets or for writing-up fauna 
surveys. They usually complain at first, but with instructions of the rules 
that I follow they usually do well, query a few things, and after a little 
practice they always interpret the code easily. 
I hope you can take it a step or two further. The three challenges I recognise 
1) Simple rules for resolving the conflicts
2) Stability in the face of changing English names
3) National standardisation.
I hope this information helps

David James, 


From: Allan Richardson <>
Cc: birding-aus Aus <> 
Sent: Tuesday, 20 March 2012 11:20 PM
Subject: Re: [Birding-Aus] RFI Bird species codes

Hi Martin,

I first came across a four letter code for bird records when doing some survey 
work for State forests in NSW in the 90's.

The basic format is this: the code represents the first four letters in the 
bird's formal name, with variations on the theme where required, as follows.

A single word bird name such as Galah would be Gala

A double word bird name such as Striated Thornbill would be St Th

A three word bird name such as Gang-Gang Cockatoo would be GG Co

A four word bird name such as Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike would be Bf Cs, 
although when I use the code I always put in the hyphens as an added cue to the 
bird's identity - e.g. B-f C-s or G-G Co for the Gang-Gangs above.

The hyphens also help to separate some species that  would otherwise be 
difficult to separate, such as Brown Thornbill (Br Th), and Buff-rumped 
Thornbill  (B-r Th), or Masked Lapwing (Ma La), and Magpie-lark (Ma-la), or 
Little Black Cormorant (L B Co), and Long-billed Corella, (L-b Co). Using 
capitalisation where it falls also helps to separate species as you can see 
from these examples.

There will always be those species that you can't easily separated, because 
their codes are the same, such as White-breasted Woodswallow (W-b Wo), and 
White-browed Woodswallow (W-b Wo), so you might have to add another digit, such 
as W-bs Wo and W-bw Wo respectively. It won't ring true if you're trying to 
develop a four letter code database but neither would the hyphens in such a 
case. Overlaps are not that frequent for local lists, but they do add an 
element of ambiguity for referencing down the track or when you are listing or 
surveying on a large trip or large area, where many species will be encountered.

I do know of a number of folk who give birds their own four letter codes as 
their imagination dictates, but the above code is one more formal approach that 
I have used now for many years. I find it very useful for saving on note pad 
paper and being able to get down many species when activity is high. it does 
take some getting used to, especially when you have to interpret them later, or 
worse still, you pass them on to have someone else interpret them.

i have noticed lately, while entering bird names into datbases (encompassing 
all fauna guilds) that many species have sequences of letters that bring only 
one species up very quickly with few characters entered, such as ie- for 
Magpie-lark, toeb for Mistletoebird, er-ey for Silver-eye or llarb for 
Dollarbird. A difficult method to take on board, because you would have to 
remember all of the codes without a format formula to follow, but especially 
powerful when others may have to enter your data into a database and you are 
not around to give them help when they get stuck.

I would guess that most four letter codes are similar or a variation on the 
above more formal theme.

All the best,

Allan Richardson
Morisset, NSW

On 20/03/2012, at 2:25 PM,  wrote:

> A request for list members.
> Would the people/person who developed short acronyms or 'series of 
> letters' for Australian species codes please send me a copy of their code 
> list or direct me to where this can be found?
> Martin O'Brien
> Melbourne
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