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Bird Central - Bird glossary
Category: Agriculture and Industry
Date & country: 27/09/2013, USA
Words: 115

An abnormal lack of pigment. Albino Red-tailed Hawk

mutually exclusive geographically as contrasted with sympatric. From The Birdwatcher's Companion : Separated geographically; usually refers to closely related species or subspecies whose breeding ranges, although adjacent, do not overlap. In this situation the possibility of interbreeding cannot be tested because the two forms do not normally meet.

Alternate plumage
The spring plumage which is also referred to as the breeding plumage; the basic plumage is the plumage the bird has during the winter or the non-breeding time.

Birds that are born without feathers, the ability to see, or the ability to feed themselves are called altricial. There are different levels of altricial young. Some are born with their eyes closed and no down, some have their eyes open and substantial down on them. But all altricial young need to be fed by their parents in contrast with precocial young which feed themselves within hours of being born. See Young birds.

Interpreting the behavior of non-human animals in terms of our understanding of human animals. There are some needs such as the need to eat, sleep, drink water, that are very similar between humans and non-human animals. In other cases the practice of interpreting animal behavior in human terms is not always warranted.

Phylum of segmented animals that have hard outer skeletons. Phylum includes insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. There are over 1 million species in this phylum. This is the largest phylum of invertebrates.

Audubon Society
Founded in 1896; the primary goal of the Audubon Society is to promote conservation of natural resources and encourage awareness of nature.

Avian Dispersal
Movement of individuals from an area of high intensity to areas of low intensity. Often this term refers to movement of recently fledged birds to an area other than where they were born.

Avian Intelligence
The intelligence of birds is difficult to define. To many scientists, when birds participate in problem solving, or demonstrate memory, or cognitive mapping, they demonstrate signs of intelligence. Some people argue that it is not intelligence, but rather advanced stimulus response. Some birds, such as members of the Corvidae family, demonstrate advanced memory and advanced problem solving. The natural history notes from Bent for the Common Grackle and Western Gull demonstrates what many would consider to be examples of avian intelligence. See Learning.

A structure used to house birds. Many zoos have large aviaries that visitors may walk within and view the birds. The Rufous Hummingbird, Common Moorhen, Greater Flamingo, Yellow Grosbeak, Brewer's Sparrow, Hooded Oriole, were photographed in aviaries.

The science of studying birds by gathering data on their movements and age. This is done by putting a very light aluminum band around one of their legs. The band has a number which is recorded in a book with all appropriate data. When the bird dies or is recaptured the band is recovered and scientists retrieve data about how far the bird has traveled and how long it has lived, in addition to other data. This White-crowned Sparrow has a band on its leg. For a look at some of the work of a banding station check out this page from the Ft. Steven's banding station in the state of Washington.

Basic plumage
The plumage a bird has during its non-breeding time which is most of the year. The alternate plumage is the plumage during the breeding time.

The jaws of the bird; the tool that the bird uses to eat with. The type of beak that the bird has determines the type of food that is easiest to eat. The Snail Kite has a beak that is especially adapted to eat large snails. The Long-billed Curlew has a beak that is specially adapted to probe deep in the sand, while the Black Turnstone has a beak that is good for turning over small stones. The Black Turnstone does not compete with the Curlew for food because it can't obtain the type of food that the Curlew eats. The Broad-billed Hummingbird cannot eat the seeds that the Black-headed Grosbeak eats. Different species that seem to have the same type of beak really are more different than we think and this helps them to not compete for the same type of food. (See Gause's Rule of Non-Competition)

How an animal responds to the outside world. The behavior of a Black-necked Stilt is much different from the behavior of the Cooper's Hawk. Behavior is one of the themes included in the education section.

The study of living organisms. This includes, but is not restricted to, zoology and botany and other studies.

Plant communities such as chaparral, tundra, coniferous forest, deciduous forest, grassland, southwestern (U.S.) pine-oak woodland, pinyon-juniper woodland, chaparral, and desert. There are many different types of plant communities. They can be broken into eight large categories.

The art and science of observing birds. It is done by amateurs and professionals alike. In fact there are many people who are birdwatchers who don't even know that they are birdwatchers. Beyond Birding is a good source that looks at the possibilities of bird-watching.

The process of raising a family of birds. It requires courtship, nesting, feeding, and dispersal. Many species migrate to their breeding grounds.

The young hatched from a clutch of eggs; a species of bird may have two or even three broods in a single breeding season.

When one species uses a different species to raise their young, quite often to the damage of the parenting species. This is generally seen in the US when the Brown-headed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of many species of songbirds, especially warblers. The warblers end up raising the cowbird instead of their own young. Young Brown Headed Cowbird being fed by Oregon Junco.

When the plumage of an animal resembles the habitat where it lives and makes it difficult for other animals to find it. Some birds are particularly good at camouflage such as the American Bittern.

Care behavior
How a bird maintains its body. Basic functions that most birds utilize to care for their feathers such as bathing, drying, head scratching, anting, preening, sunning, and dusting.

Animals whose diet consists primarily of other animals.

Dead animals. With the exception of vultures, crows, jays, gulls and a few others, most birds will not eat dead animals.

Determining the numbers of birds within a particular area (see Christmas Count).

A dry shrub land found in the west; manzanita, chamisal and mahogany are typical plants. Wrentit is a good typical bird of the chaparral.

Christmas Count
During the last two weeks of the year, since the beginning of the twentieth century, thousands of birdwatchers census the birds found within their neighborhoods. Each location throughout the United States picks a single day to count the birds in a circle with a fifteen mile diameter.

In the phylum vertebrates, there are five classes: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

The process of organizing the species. In the animal world the classification system uses Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. In the study of birds, the Kingdom = Animal Kingdom, Phylum = Vertebrates (animals with backbones), Class = Birds. In the study of North American birds we are currently (2006) recognizing 19 Orders and 67 families of birds. Classification is one aspect of zoology that is changing as we learn more about DNA and we use DNA/DNA comparison to re-evaluate which species is related to which. Classification expresses how we imagine nature is structured. (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Species)

Clutch Size
The number of eggs within a nest.

The color we see when we view a bird. This can be more complicated than we imagine. The color of everything that we see is the result of the light waves that are reflected back to us. If we see a white bird such as the Gt. Egret , then all the light waves are being reflected back to us. When we see colors other than white there are two basic causes: structural colors and pigmental colors.

Common Loon preening
Great Egret preening

Refers to organisms living within a defined habitat. Organisms within a freshwater marsh are related in many ways, one of which is being part of a food web. Within many communities different bird species will feed together and benefit from the cooperation. Community ecology is a branch of science that studies the patterns of community members.

The species of birds that are all in the same genus. The Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) are congeners in the genus Pluvialis. But the other plovers, Semi-palmated (Charadrius semipalmatus), Snowy (Charadrius alexandrinus), Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) and Mountain (Charadrius montanus) are congeners of a different genus, Charadrius.

Convergent Evolution
The independent evolution of structural or functional similarity among unrelated groups. Introduction to California Birdlife, Jules Evens and Ian Tait.. For an example look at the Tri-colored Heron and the Green Heron. Two different species that have similar hunting techniques in the same habitat.

The behavior that various animals (usually males) utilize to attract a mate.

Arthropods such as crabs, lobsters, shrimp; have a hard outer shell.


Describes a beak that is curved down as in the Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, White Ibis etc.

Large order of insects; true flies including house flies, and blood sucking flies such as mosquitoes and midges, etc.

The chemical code that determines an individual's uniqueness. All vertebrates are the result of a combination of their parent's DNA. (See classification)

A type of care behavior in which certain species of birds roll their bodies in dirt to help in their battles with external parasites. Examples of this can be seen in the House Sparrow and the California Quail.

Eclipse plumage
A post breeding plumage that occurs in some species; often refers to plumage that male ducks have between their breeding plumage and their non-breeding plumage; some species of ducks are unable to fly during this plumage.

The totality of factors of all kinds that make up a particular environment.

The edge of a habitat; quite often the edge between two different habitats.

When a population of a species is at a point that the species may not exist for too many more years, it is determined to be an endangered species. Examples of endangered species would be: California Condor, Clapper Rail. Some members of the Endangered List have been removed such as the Bald Eagle, and the Brown Pelican.

Found only in certain areas. The Yellow-billed Magpie is only found in the state of California, so it is endemic to California. The American Magpie is found in many states so it is not endemic.

The study of animal behavior under natural conditions. Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz and Karl Von Frisch are considered the originators of this science, and they received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1973 for their work.

Evolution of birdlife
(From The Birdwatcher's Companion )

Extinct from a particular region. The Sharp-tailed Grouse has been extirpated from California.

Feather tracts
The bird's body is not covered with feathers, but instead has tracts from which the feathers come from and cover the entire body. In between the tracts is bare skin.

The process of acquiring food. Some animals specialize in particular types of food. Animals that specialize in fish are called piscivorous; animals that specialize in insects are called insectivorous. Omnivorous describes the many species of animals that feed on what is available. The American Crow is omnivorous.

The different behavior used by birds to find food. Basically there are two main categories of foraging: feeding from the air and feeding from a surface. Feeding from a surface can be classified as gleaning (Yellow-rumped Warbler), reaching (Little Blue Heron), hang gleaning, lunging. Feeding from a surface to under the surface can be classified as probing (Brown Creeper), gaping, pecking (woodpeckers), chiseling, hammering (woodpeckers, chickadees, titmouse), flaking (woodpecker), prying (woodpecker) and scratching. Aerial maneuvers can be defined as sallying, flutter chase, flush, pursue, hover gleaning (Blue-gray Gnatcatcher), and screen.

The level of classification between Family and Species. Within the family Anatidae (the Ducks, Geese, Swans) there is the genus Anas which includes the Mallard, (Anas platyrhynchos) Shoveler (Anas clypeata) and teals and other ducks. This genus is quite different from the genus Mergus which includes the Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) and the Common Merganser, but interestingly does not include the Hooded Merganser. By studying genera (plural of genus) a birdwatcher can begin to understand some of the subtle differences between birds. By noticing that the Hooded Merganser and the Red-breasted Merganser belong to different genera one would want to understand what the difference is between the two birds. (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

Where an organism lives. For some types of birds like the House Sparrow, the habitat is not important. For other species such as the Clapper Rail there are very specific requirements in the type of habitat it can live in. Quite often habitats are very specific to different species in the same family. The Brown Pelican needs salt water while the White Pelican is almost always in fresh water. The American Dipper is usually found in mountainous streams of fast moving water. There are also species that change habitats during a year. The Common Loon spends its non-breeding time mainly in salt water, while it breeds entirely on freshwater lakes. The Wrentit is only found in chaparral habitat, while the American Crow is found in most every habitat. A bird's habitat is different from its range.

Large order of insects that includes the true bugs.

Animals that eat primarily plants (i.e., Blue Grouse, White-tailed Ptarmigan)

Hoffman, Ralph
Author of Birds of the Pacific States; my first field guide to the birds of the Pacific states and a great pleasure to read. Some of his writing can be viewed in the natural history accounts of these species: Gray Flycatcher, Tri-colored Blackbird,

Very large order of insects that includes bees, wasps, ants (see anting), sawflies, etc. Over 100,000 species.

The period of time from when the eggs are laid to when they hatch. Generally, smaller birds have shorter incubation times, larger birds have larger incubation times.

Invertebrates of the class, Arthropod, that have six legs and three body parts: head, thorax, abdomen. Over 700,000 species. Includes beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps, ants, bees, flies, mosquitoes, true bugs, aphids, cockroach, grasshoppers, etc. People who study insects are entomologists. Insects on the WWW. There are reports of a few insects that eat birds such as the Preying mantis eating small birds (hummingbirds),

Introduced Species
Species that are brought over to an area generally by human forces. The Starling was brought to the United States by a person who wanted to have birds that are in Shakespeare's plays present in America. This species has increased in number in the hundred years it has been here and has caused considerable damage. Other examples of introduced species would be the English Sparrow, and the Common Pigeon. The pigeon was native to Europe and brought to North America.

Animals without backbones. It is difficult to over estimate the importance of invertebrates to the rest of the living world.

Iridescent Colors
Colors that result from light waves being interfered with. This effect is seen often in hummingbirds and also on various blackbirds, members of the crow family like the Common Raven, and ducks such as the Bufflehead.

The plumage that a bird has after leaving the nest. This is shown on the page of the Western Gull. the White-crowned Sparrow.

A bird while it wears its juvenal plumage. This period of time can vary for different species. Many songbirds reach adult plumage within a few months while other species such as gulls and hawks take a few years before they obtain adult plumage.

Keystone Species
A certain key species playing a major role that is out of proportion to its abundance in the community. A keystone species has an effect on the overall diversity of a habitat. If you take a keystone species out of an area the result is a major change to that area. Red-naped Sapsucker is a keystone species because of the number of other species that are dependent on the sap and insects that they get from the holes that the sapsucker drills into the tree. The Kinglet and the Sapsucker A series of pictures showing a Ruby-crowned Kinglet feeding from holes made by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This is a commensal relationship when one species benefits (The Ruby-crowned Kinglet) and the other species (The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker) is not affected either positively or negatively.

Formerly the living world was divided up into two kingdoms: animals and plants. Now it is generally recognized that there are five distinct Kingdoms. Prokaryotae (bacteria), Protoctista (nucleated algae, water molds), Fungi, Plants and Animals. (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

Stealing food from an individual who has just obtained it. This is especially done by Magnificent Frigatebirds, Bald Eagles, and Parasitic Jaegers.

Life zones
A system originated from C. H. Merriam in the late nineteenth century to correlate distribution of plants and animals to zones determined by temperature. West coast zones would be Arctic, Hudsonian, Canadian, Transition, Upper Sonoran and Lower Sonoran. This system is not currently used since distribution of plants and animals is influenced by more than just temperature.

A moderately moist habitat; as opposed to a xeric habitat which is dry.

The movement of various organisms from one area to another. Some migrations are very modest as a species will go from an area where it is convenient to breed, to an area where it is easier to spend the winter. Other migrations are more dramatic as small songbirds, such as the Black and White Warbler, fly from Canada, where they breed, to South America where they will spend the winter. An excellent source on migration is Scott Weidensaul's book, Living on the Wind.

Invertebrates of the phylum Mollusca. Examples include clams, oysters, snails, squid, slugs, octopus. Number of species is currently estimated to be about 50,000.

The study of the form and shape of an animal.

Naming Birds
We generally give birds two names: the Common Name and the Scientific Name. The Common Name is the one generally used by the public and the Scientific Name is used by ornithologists and serious birdwatchers. The advantage of the scientific name is that when you refer to the Red-tailed Hawk as Buteo jamaicensis, an ornithologist who speaks a different language and doesn't know what the name Red-tailed Hawk refers to, will know the identification marks of the genus Buteo.

Place that birds use to incubate their eggs. Some species also use the nest to raise their young until they fledge. There are as many different types of nests as there are species of birds. Some nests are very basic while others are quite complex. Some are very small (Hummingbird) while others grow larger and larger over the years (Osprey). Many shorebirds create little scrapes on the ground to protect their eggs but once the young are born the scrape is abandoned since the young are precocial. The nests for altricial young have to provide more protection for a longer period of time.

A species that is dependent on a very narrow food base. The White-tailed Kite feeds almost entirely on mice of the genus Microtus. The kite has been described as a Microtene Obligate. The Snail Kite feeds entirely on snails, and specifically the Apple Snail (Pomacea paludosa).

one who participates in oology, the study and collection of eggs.

Term used to define the feeding habits of organisms that will take whatever food is available. Species, like Starlings, Brewer's Blackbirds, Common Crows, and most of the jays, are opportunistic feeders.

The level of classification between Class and Family. Depending on which authority you use there are 23 Orders of birds in the world and 19 orders of birds found in the United States. This number could change in the next few years, if Flamingos are put back into their own order. Some accounts have combined more species into the order Ciconiformes (2006) which will result in fewer Orders of birds. (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Species)

The scientific study of birds. It is a branch of zoology, which is the study of animals. Ornithology utilizes both laboratory study and field study to find out how birds operate physiologically, to understand their behavior, how they relate to their environment and other animals (ecology), and which species is related to which other species (speciation). Beyond Birding

Taking resources from another individual to the detriment of that individual. There are many examples of parasitic behavior amongst birds. The behavior of the Brown-headed Cowbird is an example of a type of parasitism. Kleptoparasitism is another example. There are many types of parasites that live off of birds.

Refers to animals that spend the majority of their time in the open ocean. Examples of pelagic birds include the Black-footed Albatross, and the Sooty Shearwater, etc. The Pelagic Cormorant, despite its name, is not a pelagic bird because it spends most of its nights on land. It only uses the immediate coastal waters.

The next order of classification after Kingdom. Birds belong to the phylum, Vertebrates. (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species)

Pigments are responsible for the color that we see in feathers, beaks, and legs. Albinism is the absence of pigments.

From A New Dictionary of Birds (1964)

Having more than one female as a mate at one time

Baby birds that are born with the ability to, within some number of hours, move on their own and feed themselves. Most shorebirds and grouse/quail are precocial young. While there are many variations of both altricial and precocial, in general precocial young leave the nest when they are born and altricial young stay in the nest and are fed and kept warm by their parents. See Young Birds.

eyes open, down covered, leave nest first day or two

Predator Prey Relationship
The relationship that exists between the predator and the animals that it feeds upon. This can be understood in the Inuit tale, The Wolf and the Caribou, paraphrased by Farley Mowat in his book, Never Cry Wolf.

The process that birds use to keep their feathers in order; to maintain the protection that the feathers provide for the bird.

Variations within a species; also referred to as sub-species. Sometimes with more study a race is recognized to be a distinct species which is what happened with the Western Grebe and Clark's Grebe. Two species can also be lumped together when it is realized that they are races of the same species (Northern Flicker). The Northern Flicker previously was split and we recognized the Red-shafted Flicker and the Yellow-shafted Flicker as two different species.

Range defines where a species is found. Range includes both breeding and wintering areas. Some species occupy different habitats during their breeding time than they do during wintering period.

Term used to refer to hawks and owls and refers to their ability to catch other animals. It is, in many ways, a misapplied term since many other birds prey on a variety of animals. All the long-legged wading birds (Gt. Blue Heron, Gt. Egret, etc.) feed on a wide variety of vertebrates and invertebrates. Flycatchers prey on insects as do swallows and many others. The Kestrel feeds primarily on insects.

The ability of the tip of the bill of many shorebirds to be very pliable as seen in this Short-billed Dowitcher.

An animal that eats available food such as garbage, and carrion. Examples include the Black-footed Albatross, the Turkey Vulture, and smaller birds such as the Common Crow, the magpies, and others. Some species will change from their usual food gathering role and become scavengers when the opportunity presents itself. I once watched a Gt. Egret eat parts of fish left from human fisherman that were cleaning their catch.

Scientific Method
The process of establishing an hypothesis and gathering data that either proves or disproves the hypothesis. Scientific method is discussed in Beyond Birding.

The most basic form of a nest, the scrape is a small depression in the ground where the eggs are laid. This is usually done by shorebirds including plovers, Black Skimmer, and the Least Tern.

Sexual Dimorphism
When the female and the male of a species have different plumages. The differences in the plumage can range from entirely different as in the Northern Harrier, or more subtle as in the Acorn Woodpecker.

A term that is vague in its usefulness. It generally refers to birds that are found along the edge of water. This term is used to refer to members of the order Charadriformes which includes members of the families, plovers, sandpipers, phalaropes, oystercatchers, etc. But many shorebirds that spend their non-breeding time around water, will migrate and spend their breeding time in a very different habitat.