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Humphrey-Parkes terminology

Updated: 2016-09-22T04:54Z

Humphrey-Parkes terminology is a system of nomenclature for the plumage of birds. Before the Humphrey-Parkes system, plumage was named after the belief that a certain plumage was breeding plumage and others were not. However, as this system did not always work correctly, the new Humphrey-Parkes came into use to rectify this error.

Under the Humphrey-Parkes nomenclature, the main adult plumage, especially when it is produced by a complete molt, is called basic plumage. In most birds, the non-breeding plumage, which is worn longer than the breeding plumage, is known as the basic plumage. In birds that molt only once a year, the regular and only plumage is known as basic plumage.

In some birds, a partial molt occurs before the bird breeds. This plumage is known as the alternate plumage and is generally what was previously known as a bird’s breeding plumage. If a bird produces a third plumage in addition to the basic and alternative, it is known as supplemental plumage. This plumage is most frequently found in ptarmigans. The unique plumage of a juvenile bird is known as juvenal (or less precicely, juvenile) plumage.[1]

When the bird is molting, the molt is known as a prejuvenal, prebasic, prealternate, or presupplemental molt, depending on which type follows the molt.

For birds that do not completely molt into full adult plumage the first time, a numbering system is used to signify which plumage it is in. For example, for the first time a bird enters basic plumage, the plumage is known as first basic plumage; the second, second basic plumage. The numbers are dropped after a bird achieves its full adult plumage.


  • Bonney, Rick; Rohrbaugh, Jr., Ronald (2004), Handbook of Bird Biology (Second ed.), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-938027-62-X 

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