When my alarm goes off each morning, I hit snooze, and I hit snooze again. Then I grab my phone and ease into the day with a game of Spelling Bee.
Spelling Bee is an addictive word challenge game that became popular during the pandemic, only to be later eclipsed in fame by Wordle, another word game that recently took the internet by storm. Both are now run by the New York Times. In Spelling Bee, a player uses seven letters to form as many as words as possible, aiming to achieve "genius" status. Each word must be at least four letters and contain that day's required letter.
There's one more catch: Not every possible word is accepted—and therefore, not every word is worth points. According to the puzzle’s rules: “Our word list does not include words that are offensive, obscure, hyphenated or proper nouns.”
For many game fans, the critical word is “obscure.” Jargon is a universal construct. Dive into any job or hobby or become familiar with any culture, or subculture, and you will inevitably develop a specialized lexicon that confuses outsiders. Foodies know a wider ranger of dishes and ingredients than the average person on the street, for example, while gardeners know flowers and carpenters know unusual tools.
Bird people also have their own unique dictionary—the most obvious entries being the names of birds themselves. Knowing about birds can confer an advantage at all kinds of word puzzles, whether in Spelling Bee or a classic game of Scrabble. But it also can be frustrating when a bird that you know isn’t valid.
Keep reading for a close look at some avian strategy for several popular word games. For puzzle fans who don’t know much about birds, you may gain an extra edge and hopefully a greater appreciation for the wide spectrum of avian diversity. And for bird fans who like puzzles, prepare to have opinions.
Since its digital debut in 2018, Spelling Bee has published more than 1,400 daily puzzles. The unenviable task of arbitrating which words are and aren’t obscure is led by New York Times digital puzzles editor Sam Ezersky, who through a spokesperson declined what (I thought) was an irresistible opportunity to be interviewed about avian curation strategy.
Without his input, I turned to surveying colleagues and Twitter. I also relied heavily on the excellent Spelling Bee Solver, a site with daily puzzle hints and a searchable archive created by puzzle aficionado William Shunn; all statistics below come from my searches of his site. (Note: Playing Spelling Bee beyond the early levels requires a New York Times Games subscription, though you can also find similar free- and ad-supported versions of this game. Those puzzles, however, may use different word lists).
Accepted Birds So Far, By Number of Puzzle Appearances*
- >50 appearances: Dodo (73), Nene (71); Loon (70); Coot (57)
- 20-50: Pipit (34); Tomtit (27); Booby (25); Gull (23); Myna (21)
- 10-20: Eagle (12); Lark (12); Cockatoo (11)
- 6-10: Peahen, Raptor (8); Parrot (8); Mallard (7); Mynah (6)
- 2-5: Cuckoo, Pewee (5); Crow, Titmice, Condor, Martin (4); Whippoorwill, Bobolink, Towhee (3); Finch, Robin, Toucan, Chicken, Dove (2)
- 1: Peafowl; Hawk; Wigeon; Duck; Junco; Puffin; Bunting; Hawk; Owlet; Penguin
*This is a relatively comprehensive list but probably not a complete one.
According to Spelling Bee Solver, Dodo and Nene are among the Top 20 most frequently appearing words in all of the game, closely followed by Loons. It's a little sad that of the three, Dodos are extinct, and Nēnēs were almost extinct with only 30 birds left in the wild. (Today their populations are recovering and are viewed as an inspiring example of successful intervention to save a species).
That Nēnēs are accepted at all is surprising. Evolved from Canada Geese and native only to the Hawaiian islands, they should be obscure birds to most people who don’t live or visit there. William Shunn theorizes, however, that these birds may be especially familiar to word puzzle fans. Well before Spelling Bee ever existed, Nēnēs have been popular inclusions in crossword puzzles (more on the reasons for that below). It is also worth noting that Spelling Bee’s “Nene” may be considered misspelled by some. As a Native Hawaiian word, it should be Nēnē, with the diacritical marks to lengthen and add stress to the “e” pronunciation.
Each Spelling Bee puzzle contains at least one pangram—a word that contains all seven letters and is worth extra points. While writing this article, I learned that I completely missed the March 2022 pangram “whippoorwill”—the only bird pangram to appear so far in the game. I felt aghast at my oversight. And yet, its inclusion three times in the puzzle has turned out to be controversial among those keeping score. According to the dictionary, as well as Audubon’s Field Guide, “whip-poor-will” should contain hyphens, which would really exclude it from the game.
In the end, I’m glad when more birds are accepted rather than fewer, such as Tomtits (adorably big-headed birds in New Zealand), wigeons (a group of dabbling ducks with an alternate spelling of "widgeons"), pewees (a group of flycatchers) and two spellings of Myna/Mynah. They are great birds. But before I began learning a lot about birds a few years ago, I would not have known some of these. I can certainly understand why relatively specialized birds frustrate some players.
Two Controversial Birds That Have Flipped
- Nuthatch: Disallowed once in August 2018; allowed twice in 2020 and 2021.
- Linnet: Disallowed five times from 2019-2020; allowed five times in 2021.
I have a theory that Sam Ezersky has been learning a lot of new birds as he has worked on the Spelling Bee puzzle. Feeling like a criminal profiler, I unearth a circumstantial clue: In 2018, just before Spelling Bee launched, he used the term “sea gull” in an unrelated article he wrote. While I am the last person who would ever correct someone who says “sea gull”—it’s quite unwelcoming to birdsplain such inconsequential distinctions to beginners—it is true that most birders would have simply gone with the word “gull” instead.
This flimsy piece of evidence may help explain why “nuthatch” was at first disallowed in 2018, shortly after the puzzle launched online. Perhaps Ezersky didn’t know a lot about birds back then and therefore didn't realize how many people would be fans of these common, charismatic feeder visitors and year-round residents. By 2020, he had changed his tune.
Some Banned Birds, By Number of Times Disallowed
- >50: Motmot (53); Caracara (52)
- 20-50: Potoo (39); Aracari (31); Bulbul (21)
- 10-20: Pitta, Chachalaca (19); Graylag (10)
- 5-10: Galah (9); Drongo (6); Willet, Trogon (5)
- 2-5: Noddy, Dunlin, Hoopoe (4); Poorwill, Brant, Turaco (3); Anhinga, Woodlark, Munia (2)
- 1: Parula; Gannet
- Bonus Bird Slang Exclusions: floof (30); birb (19)
If we’re trying to avoid birds that a general audience wouldn’t know, I agree with most of these decisions (though I cannot abide the shunning of "floof"). The indie rock musician who just wrote an entire book about caracaras—among the most intelligent of all birds of prey —certainly begs to differ, however. And I am initially surprised that Brant (a winter bird that can be seen in New York City, where I live) isn’t allowed, until I look up the bird’s geographic range and remember not everyone lives on the East or West coastline.
Other bird exclusions may reveal an East coast geographic bias on the part of the puzzle creators at the New York Times. Some players have wondered why “whippoorwill”—a bird of the Eastern United States—counts, whereas “poorwill,” a common bird of the Western United States, is a no-go.
Reading the tea leaves is tough, even for experts. “It's difficult to figure out why some birds make the cut but others don't,” Shunn, of Spelling Bee Solver, writes me in an email. “Sometimes I think it might have to do with geography, since New York has the "towhee" (accepted twice) but not the "anhinga" (rejected twice). But then why does 'nene' make the cut 69 times and counting, while it takes an outcry from bird-lovers to get 'linnet' moved from the endangered column to protected status? All I can conclude is that it comes down to one individual's judgment on whether or not a bird is sufficiently well-known to make the cut.”
Even when high on my own morsel of power as an editor for Audubon.org, my word choices aren’t nearly as scrutinized as Ezersky’s. I can imagine it’s a lot of pressure. Shunn agrees: “Every day on Twitter I see people criticizing Sam—some in a light-hearted way, but others in a less kind tone—for his supposed prejudices, blindspots, and ignorance.” Perhaps that's why the New York Times declined my interview request: Spelling Bee is too hot of a topic.
So I will end this section with an important reminder: It’s just a game. Maybe we can all remember that and chill out a little when our word isn't accepted.
Side Note: Birds That Have Not Yet—and May Never—Appear in Spelling Bee
Interestingly, there’s a far longer list of birds that could, in theory, be included within Spelling Bee solutions but have not yet appeared as possibilities in any published puzzle. As a result, they have yet to be ruled upon by the powers that be. According to Spelling Bee Solver’s search tool, this includes birds such as: Goose; Grebe; Sparrow; Pigeon; Crane; Warbler; Catbird; Grouse; Vireo; Wren; Oriole; Heron; Killdeer; Siskin; Plover; Ibis; Spoonbill; Falcon; Raven; Avocet; Thrush; Pelican; Cardinal; Godwit; Phoebe; Magpie, Chickadee; Turkey; and Quail.
I’m definitely surprised that birds like grebe and goose and ibis have not yet appeared, given that they only comprise a few common letters. But Shunn tells me that the puzzle usually avoids the letter “s,” as well as the combination of “e” and “r” together, because of the very long word list including these letters would create. That does help explain the omission of many (but not all) birds above. I do hope one day we see cardinal as a pangram.
Brooklyn-based software developer Josh Wardle launched Wordle to the public in October 2021 and it soon went viral, later to be acquired by the New York Times (it remains free). The game launched with a predefined list of about 2,500 commonly known five-letter words that could solve the puzzle, selected by Wardle's partner. Each word would eventually appear as the solution to a daily puzzle, unraveling over the course of a few years.
Warning: Below are spoilers for Wordle games that have already appeared, so please keep scrolling if you will be upset by this. The dates and numbers of the puzzles are not included.
So far, three birds have appeared as answers to Wordle’s daily puzzles, according to several unofficial lists I unearthed online. The first, booby, has two meanings, so I’m not going to overanalyze that one. The other two—heron and robin —are unsurprisingly very common kinds of birds. A fourth bird-related term, "moult,” reveals creator Wardle’s British-born roots and appeared as an answer in the weeks before the game was widely released to the public. In the United States, we would spell this as “molt.”
Now that the New York Times owns the game, it's unlikely we would see solutions that use British spellings. I suspect there will be additional common birds that we see as future Wordle answers, such as goose, geese, and eagle. But I think we are even less likely to see more obscure birds here than in Spelling Bee. It would ruin too many streaks.
Luckily, for bird enthusiasts, there is a much larger aviary acceptable as guesses into each Wordle puzzle. In fact, drawing from a list of five-letter bird names, I could not find a single bird that was rejected as a guess (and birds like Galah and Serin, being not of this hemisphere, were completely unfamiliar to me).
If you are inclined to start your Wordle with a strategic bird word—i.e. one that contains many common letters—some good bets might be: Robin; Snipe; Brant; and Serin. Each of these words contains four out of the nine most commonly used letters in the English language. And for an even tougher avian challenge, try an alternative version of the game: BRDL, by Audubon graphic designer Alex Tomlinson.
Great crossword players thrive on obscure trivia and clever word play. People who design crossword puzzles, however, tend to have a few go-to words that are especially useful for fitting the puzzle together. That leads to a term called “crosswordese,” which refers to words that are found far more frequently in U.S. crosswords than in regular conversation. These tend to be short words that fit into particular constraints; many will start or end in vowels or contain frequently used letters.
So which birds are crosswordese? The New York Times’s very own Sam Ezersky answered that question for us in his March 2018 article explaining 12 popular crossword birds. Nene is among them, which certainly accounts for the Spelling Bee bias.
Another top pick is the Emu, a flightless, fast Australian bird that appears so frequently that Ezersky suggests going deep on trivia beyond those obvious facts (for example, emus have large green eggs and are hunted by dingos). Ernes or Erns—an alternative names for sea-eagles—were news to me. Eiders are among my favorite birds, and they apparently appear a lot because of their unusual vowel pattern. Other favorites: Auks, Smews, and Terns. You can study the Times piece for more detail. For whatever reason, the list seems to be mostly ducks, seabirds, and flightless birds.
Excellent Scrabble players are next level, and I am not one of them. To get good, it pays to know as many unique words and terms as you can. Based on a spot check of the official Scrabble dictionary, it’s clear that pretty much any kind of bird will be good here—but watch for hyphens. While “whippoorwill” will win you high points in Spelling Bee, but if you try that in Scrabble and are challenged, the dictionary’s “whip-poor-will” will rule you out.
Perhaps the highest value Scrabble birds of all are quetzals, which are truly stunning birds in the trogon family that are native to forests in Central America and Mexico (they are Guatemala’s national bird and also the name for its currency). One bird, the Eared Quetzal, surprised birders by expanding its range as far as Arizona in the 1970s.
Never playing scrabble with Spence again. Quetzal, really? Triple word score. Blah. And who knows that it is a bird? Ornithology lover.— Ashley 🖖🏼 (@SwayWithMe1) July 26, 2010
The two letters “Q” and “Z” are worth 10 points each—the highest values in the game—and they are arranged in such a way that, in theory, it’s possible to land on a double letter score and two triple word scores using the plural version.
A “jay” is also a perfect short bird word to have in your back pocket, as the letter “J” can both offer high points and be a challenging letter to use (there is only one in the game). Birds with lots of vowels in them—such as hoopoe and oriole—are also great to keep in mind for moments when you have too many in your hand and need to dump some. As any Scrabble player knows, having too many vowels can make for a frustrating game.
When you're done, whether you need to shake off a loss or celebrate a win, I have the perfect activity: Get outside and see some birds.