Tasked with locating their mates among a dense mass of identical-looking birds, Emperor Penguins have evolved an elaborate vocal organ which can emit two sounds at once. Birders have it easier. Tasked with locating each other among the throngs of similar-looking cars on the road, we can just personalize our license plates.
The other week I saw an out-of-state plate in a ferry terminal parking lot that read B1RDER, and I knew immediately that these people were my people. I didn’t even need to meet them. Personalized plates could be a great way to let everyone know how much you love birds without having to say a word.
Having just bought a new vehicle myself, I recently asked Twitter whether I should get some vanity plates. The response was clear:
Just bought a car. Should I get personalized bird-related plates?— The Birdist (@TheBirdist) October 1, 2018
Uh-oh, time to start brainstorming.
A friend told me about a Facebook photo album belonging to Tiffany Kersten, who works at the McAllen Nature Center in Texas. Tiffany has collected more than 70 images of birdy vanity plates that have visited the Center or been submitted by others. It’s an impressive collection, with plates from all over the nation. A few trends stood out that helped frame my decision making.
Like the B1RDER plate I saw, a large number of the plates are self-referential, alluding to the car owners themselves. There are BRRDER and B1RDERZ and BIRDER1 and B1RDR plates. Tiffany has images of both CHSER (“chaser”) and TWITCHR plates, at least one of which was photographed at a rare-bird sighting out of state. There are plates for both BIRD QST and HAWKQST, as well as WEBRD, 2BIRDERS, BRDLIFE, BIRDNRD, LUV2BIRD, BRDMOBL, DR BIRD, and more. Birders want you to know they’re birders.
There was an obvious choice for me in this category. Maybe a little too obvious. It’s available: BIRDIST. My car could become my Twitter! In the biz we call that “synergistic cross-platform marketing.” But, at the same time, I remember a PSA I saw as a kid that told me not to wear clothes with my name on them, because then strangers would know my name and ask me for money on the playground. I definitely don’t want that to happen, and maybe some anonymity is beneficial. No BIRDIST plate for me.
I moved on to my other options.
The second major category in Tiffany’s bird plate Facebook album are birds themselves. Specific families are called out, like VIREO, JAEGERS, WARBLRS, TEAL, and HUMNBRD. Some are full species names, including a bunch of OSPREY, REDKNOT, DUNLIN, MTN BBRD, P FALCON, ELF OWL, a couple of VEERYs, and a pair of GRAY JAYs. This kind of plate is a lot of fun. Birders get to give their favorite bird species a public advertisement, all while working within the constraints of the license-plate letter cap.
A bunch of full species that fit within Maine’s 7-letter cap are available, including BRANT, GRAY JAY, DOVEKIE, REDKNOT, WILLET, SORA, ELF OWL (in Maine?) and, though I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole, MALLARD. I think it helps that Maine isn’t the most populous state. (To be fair, options like GADWALL, MERLIN, MERL1N, BARNOWL, and VEERY are all spoken for.)
Third is a group of more creative plates, which require a bit of thinking to decipher. Some of these incorporate numeronyms, like SHERH20 for shearwater, H20OUZL for Water Ouzel, a.k.a the American Dipper, or BALDP8 for Baldplate, a.k.a the American Wigeon. Clever!
Others are fragments of bird names, including LAZULI, RFS WNG (for Rufous-winged Sparrow, I imagine), PILEATED, and, hilariously, SKUA SP (“sp.” is an abbreviation for species and used when birders just can’t nail an ID). My two favorites are related to bird calls, including the ambiguous CHURP and the unambiguous B BZZZ—the call of the Blue-winged Warbler. I love me some birder in-jokes.
In Maine, I could have picked a classic reference, as suggested by Peter Cashwell on Twitter, and gone with EMPID SP ("empid." is an abbreviation for empidonax, a particularly vexing group of flycatchers). There's nothing more insider birder than that.
Well, almost nothing. Considering that there’s a Black-capped Chickadee on the standard license plate, I was surprised to see that the four-letter banding code for that species, BCCH, is available. This really might be the ultimate insider birder plate. I’m sure there are others out there, but the BCCH option is the only example I came across that matched the banding code to the species pictured on the plate. It’s like it’s own little eBird checklist—complete with media. Although the BCCH plate perhaps best repped my birder credentials, it's wholly self-satisfying. Almost no one else would understand.
There is one other category from Tiffany's album, but this one doesn't require any special lettering. It would, however, still project my love of birds while actually helping them out: Maine's conservation plate. A big chunk of the money spent to purchase these plates is sent to the state Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Plus, the plate features a beautiful and ornithologically-accurate Common Loon.
So what did I decide? Well, after some last-minute back-and-forth in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, I ended up going with a conservation plate. And despite all of my research, I also went unpersonalized—but only because COLO, the banding code for Common Loon, was already taken.