You’ll soon be calling the Anna’s Hummingbird, Cooper’s Hawk, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and many more well-known birds by completely different names.
In a recent announcement, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) revealed its plans to rename approximately 70 to 80 bird species.
Names on the chopping block include those that are named directly after people (eponymous names) and other names that have been deemed offensive or exclusionary.
The decision comes as part of the AOS’s broader initiative to address past wrongs, promote inclusivity, and engage a more diverse audience in the study, protection, conservation, and enjoyment of birds.
Why Are Some Bird Names Considered Offensive?
Why are bird names that were named for people considered offensive?
According to a statement by AOS Executive Director and CEO Judith Scarl Ph.D.: “As scientists, we work to eliminate bias in science. But there has been historic bias in how birds are named, and who might have a bird named in their honor. Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today, and the time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs…”
The group “Bird Name For Birds” (BN4B) has the stated goal of “Remove all eponymous English common bird names” according to their website.
They provide historical bios of some of the names in question, like John Bachman, for example. He’s the namesake of the Bachman’s Sparrow and Bachman’s Warbler. According to his biography on the BN4B website, he was a minister from South Carolina, but also a slave owner who made many racist statements and claimed that the defense of slavery “was contained within the Holy Scriptures.”
“There is power in a name,” said AOS president Colleen Handel, PhD, in a statement, “and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today. We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves. Everyone who loves and cares about birds should be able to enjoy and study them freely—and birds need our help now more than ever.”
By Any Other Name
The AOS recognizes that there are many considerations for what makes a good bird name, and one of them is stability. The longer a bird has been known by a certain name, the more likely it is that the name will be remembered and recognized.
But in their official statement, the AOS said “If a name is derogatory or conjures ill feelings for people, however, it detracts from the focus, appreciation, or consideration of the birds themselves.”
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are 152 birds with eponymous names on the list of birds determined by the AOS North American Classification Committee. The changes will begin with 70-80 birds primarily found in the US and Canada.
The renaming initiative will focus on common bird names, and eponymous scientific names will remain unchanged.
While the broad commitment to change all eponymous bird names is new, this isn’t the first time that a bird’s name was changed because the original name was deemed offensive.
In 2018, a movement developed to change the name of the McCown’s longspur, which was named after Confederate officer John McCown. This bird is now known as the thick-billed longspur.
How Will New Names Be Chosen?
Beginning in 2024, the AOS will pilot a program to develop a new approach to naming birds in the U.S. and Canada. The AOS is also committed to actively involving the public in developing new names.
Interested parties are encouraged to follow the progress of this initiative on the AOS’s official website (www.americanornithology.org) and their social media platforms, including @AmOrnith.