Bird Vocabulary: Verging on the Nidicolous

By Hugh Powell
July 15, 2008
ornithology bird vocabulary nidicolous Ornithology contains some absolute humdingers of vocabulary words. Photo of Orange-breasted Falcon chicks by Robert Berry.
New self-paced course: Learn How to Identify Bird Songs, Click to Learn More

Like any self-respecting science, ornithology contains some absolute humdingers of vocabulary words. Take the ridiculous “nidicolous”: Isn’t there a better way of saying that chicks remain in the nest after hatching? (These Orange-breasted Falcon chicks – faintly ridiculous themselves – are just one example of, er, nidicolousness.)

Here at the Lab, we try to shield you from birdspeak at its most arcane. But as anyone who has had to distinguish a greater primary covert from an outer rectrix knows, some degree of vocabulary is unavoidable. Recently a few people have suggested we provide a glossary of terms that we use commonly but that might present an obstacle to some readers.

Great idea! (Now, in addition to the Bird ID tool we’re working on, and the Song ID tool that many of you have nominated in comments, it seems we may need a Word ID tool.) I’m sure you can guess the next part: What words do you run across that you wish we’d explain?

What do commonly bandied words like “habitat,” “juvenile,” or even “species” really mean? What’s a “pileum,” a “cere,” a “gonydial angle”? What special attributes does a bird need to be considered a “cosmopolitan species” or an “indicator”? Does anyone have any other suggestions?


  • I love all the “nidicolous” terms (that’s a new one I’m going to start using for sure). In complete curiosity, it would be nice to have various bird names in this glossary: things like “pileated”, “cockaded”, and even more obvious terms like all the various color terms (vermillion, rufous, scarlet, etc.)

    This is an area where more is better. If the glossary words are linked obviously where you can hover or click for the full definition, examples, etc. that would be a good way to go.

    Just recently there was a discussion distinguishing the differences between “song” and “call” which was quite interesting and often misunderstood.


  • I think this is a great idea. Just the other day my wife was asking what a “fledgling” was. What may be obvious term to the average birder may not be for the beginner, so it would be helpful to have some “basic” terminology in this list as well.

    You could call this word ID tool “The Birdopedia” (unless thats already taken….I’ll have to do a Google search on that).


  • For the anatomical terms, how about a pop-up that appears when you hover over the word that has a bird drawing with the anatomical part highlighted?

    I picked ane easy one to address; I’ll have to think more on the less obvious.

  • Standard field mark terms like “primary projection,” “greater coverts,” and the like should all be included, as well as any technical terms used in the All About Birds species accounts. I like Birdfreak’s suggestion about defining colors, to the extent that they can be defined. Life history terms like “altricial” and “precocious” should probably be there. Basic definitions of habitats might be helpful, too (e.g., “bottomland forest” vs. “swamp” vs. “marsh”).

  • I second what everyone has said about a ‘birding terms’ glossary! I’d certainly benefit from this, especially if it included definitions of bird colors and habitats. When I first started birding, someone described a bird to me as having a “buffy” underside, and it took a bit of time for me to figure out what that meant.

    Defining the parts of a bird would be somewhat useful, although most field guides I’ve seen include labeled bird diagrams. I know whatever you come up with will be great, though! ;)

  • Hugh

    Thanks for the suggestions – and please do continue using this comments thread as a place to jot down words you think are worth defining. It’ll be a great help to us to have a starter list here.

    I like the idea of using swatches to demonstrate some of the more unusual words for color. Of course, your computer’s monitor has its own color settings, so anything we showed you would have to be approximate. (leading to inevitable comments along the lines of “Hey, that’s not puce, it’s cerise!”)

  • Include all the terms. Bird anatomy, colors, habitats, etc. The more the better. With picture examples when possible. Reference tools should always be thorough.