North American Birds Are to Receive New Names

Which North American Birds Are to Receive New Names?

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You may think you know a lot of bird names, but even if you know every single North American bird, get ready for more studying. Changes are coming to North American bird identification books.

In early November, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced that it would be changing the names of all North American birds named after people. The announcement says the group will be “actively involving” the public in the process of selecting new English common names for between 70 and 80 bird species named after people. Scientific names that take part of their names from a person, like Ammospiza nelsoni, the scientific name for Nelson’s sparrow, will not change.

The AOS wrote in the announcement that any negative feeling about some of the people who lend their names to birds “detracts from the focus, appreciation, or consideration of the birds themselves.”

For example, the controversy surrounding the past of John James Audubon, for whom the National Audubon Society and so many other parks, birds, towns, and more are named, goes back several years.

The Audubon Society itself states that he was a man who “did despicable things even by the standards of his day,” including committing fraud, plagiarism, vocally opposing emancipation, owning slaves, and stealing human remains to send to a colleague for his attempts to prove white people were superior to other races.

But in 2023, the society voted to keep its name. Some local chapters have ditched Audubon’s name, including the chapter where I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which changed its name from Madison Audubon to the Badgerland Bird Alliance.

While the decision to rename some of the birds doesn’t come as a total surprise, it’s a tad surprising to see every single bird’s name changed.

Given the coverage that has been given to Audubon’s past, no one would have batted an eye at the suggestion to change the two birds named after Audubon – Audubon’s shearwater and Audubon’s oriole. But it may be that people just don’t know about the histories of some other people for whom birds are named, and it makes sense to remove all names in order to eliminate any debate over worthiness.

Audubon's Oriole
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

Scott’s oriole, for example, a native of the American Southwest and Mexico, is named after U.S. Civil War general Winfield Scott, “who oversaw the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples in 1838 that eventually became the Trail of Tears,” the New York Times’ Katrina Miller writes.

It’s perhaps a bit unfortunate that some of ornithology’s most crucial figures without checkered pasts will no longer have the honor of their name attached to a species name, but one ornithologist Miller interviewed, Cornell University’s John Fitzpatrick, makes a good point.

Miller wrote that Fitzpatrick originally thought that bird names could be considered on a case-by-case basis in order to preserve the history in the names, but after more conversation on the topic, he came to believe “there is no formula by which we can figure out which names are good enough.”

And as some have pointed out – including the AOS – new names can be provided that more accurately reflect the physical description of a bird. It’s not a new concept to rename species with this in mind. The thick-billed longspur was renamed from McCown’s longspur in 2022 as John P. McCown fought in the Confederacy during the Civil War and the long-tailed duck was renamed in 2000, given the former name was considered offensive to Indigenous Americans.

Both of those new names give more accurate physical descriptions of birds, which can be helpful as new birders learn about species. It’s certainly easier for a birder unfamiliar with waterfowl to narrow a species down to a long-tailed duck as soon as they spot that signature thin, long tail than it is to identify a bird based on a person’s name or a word that doesn’t help to describe the bird’s attributes or habitat.

Among the other species set to receive new names include Ross’s goose and Barrow’s goldeneye among a slew of other water-faring birds, Gambel’s quail, Swainson’s hawk, thrush, and warbler, Anna’s, Allen’s, and Costa’s hummingbirds, Bullock’s oriole (pictured below), and many others.

Swainson’s hawk
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

It will certainly take some adjusting as we shift our thinking to the new names that these birds will inevitably receive, but we’ll get used to it.

What Other Birds Are Getting New Names?

A full list of names to be changed hasn’t yet been released, but the AOS states it will start with species in the United States and Canada, a list that is believed will be between 70 and 80 birds. At first glance, here are some of the birds named after people that could be on that list, depending on the final criteria:

Waterfowl: Ross’s goose

Cormorants and grebes: Brandt’s cormorant, Clark’s grebe

Murrelets and auklets: Kittlitz’s murrelet, Scripps’s murrelet, Craveri’s murrelet, Cassin’s murrelet, Cassin’s auklet

Sea-faring birds: Cory’s shearwater, Buller’s shearwater, Audubon’s shearwater, Wilson’s storm-petrel, Leach’s storm-petrel

Gulls and terns: Bonaparte’s gull, Ross’s gull, Franklin’s gull, Heermann’s gull, Forster’s tern

Shorebirds: Wilson’s snipe, Wilson’s phalarope

Rails: Ridgway’s rail

Quails: Gambel’s quail

Hawks: Cooper’s hawk, Harris’s hawk, Swainson’s hawk

Hummingbirds: Rivoli’s hummingbird, Costa’s hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird

Swifts: Vaux’s swift

Woodpeckers: Williamson’s sapsucker, Lewis’s sapsucker, Nuttall’s woodpecker

Jays and nutcrackers: Steller’s jay, Woodhouse’s scrub-jay, Clark’s nutcracker,

Flycatchers and kingbirds: Hammond’s flycatcher, Nutting’s flycatcher, Cassin’s kingbird

Thrashers: Bendire’s thrasher, LeConte’s thrasher

Thrushes: Swainson’s thrush, Bicknell’s thrush, Townsend’s solitaire

Wrens: Bewick’s wren

Vireos: Hutton’s vireo, Cassin’s vireo

Warblers: Swainson’s warbler, Lucy’s warbler, Virginia’s warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, Wilson’s warbler

Sparrows: Bachman’s sparrow, Cassin’s sparrow, Harris’s sparrow, Bell’s sparrow, LeConte’s sparrow, Nelson’s sparrow, Baird’s sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, Lincoln’s sparrow, Abert’s towhee

Finches: Cassin’s finch, Lawrence’s goldfinch

Blackbirds: Bullock’s oriole, Audubon’s oriole, Scott’s oriole, Brewer’s blackbird

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