Why Dozens of North American Birds Will Soon Get New Names
by Sarah Kuta  /  November 1, 2023

“Starting next year, dozens of birds will be getting new names. The American Ornithological Society announced Wednesday that it will choose new monikers for North American birds named after people, as well as birds with names deemed to be offensive or exclusionary. “There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today,” Colleen Handel, the society’s president and a biologist with the United States Geological Survey, says in a statement. “We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves.”

The decision follows months of meetings and discussions about how the group should handle birds named after problematic historical figures, including enslavers, colonialists, racists and grave-robbers. Eventually, rather than evaluating individual species on a case-by-case basis, the organization decided to change all eponymous bird names. “They imply possession of a species,” says Erica Nol, who co-chairs the American Ornithological Society’s ad-hoc renaming committee, to the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears. “They are overwhelmingly from a particular time and social fabric, they are almost all white men, few women, and women were almost all first names.”

The society will focus on an initial group of 70 to 80 species that primarily inhabit the U.S. and Canada. It plans to establish a new committee that will oversee the name changes and engage the public in their decisions. They will not change the birds’ scientific names, even though some of those are also derived from people’s names. The initiative’s main goal is to help make birding—and bird conservation—more inclusive and welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Some three billion birds have disappeared from North America since 1970—and amid habitat loss, collisions with windows, threats from cats and climate change, birds need all the help they can get to reverse their decline. “We need as many people as possible to get excited about birds and unite to protect them,” says Judith Scarl, the society’s executive director and CEO, in the statement.

Since 1886, the American Ornithological Society and its predecessor organization have maintained a list of common, English bird names in North America. Periodically, the group has re-selected a bird’s name, but those changes were primarily made for scientific reasons. In recent years, however, the society began to consider name changes to promote social justice. That shift largely began in 2020, after a police officer murdered George Floyd and sparked nationwide racial justice protests. On the same day Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, a white woman falsely accused Christian Cooper, a Black birder, of threatening her life in New York City’s Central Park.

On the heels of the Central Park incident, activists formed a grassroots group called Bird Names for Birds and began to push the American Ornithological Society to rename all eponymous avian species. For example, in the case of a prairie bird named for Confederate General John P. McCown, the society had rejected a proposal to rename it in 2019. But it reversed course in 2020, choosing to deem the species the “thick-billed longspur.” Last year, the society convened an ad-hoc committee with diverse members to study the bird naming issue more broadly. The group is prepared for pushback following its decision. However, some longtime birders have already come around to the idea, including Kenn Kaufman, a well-known field guide author.

Though he initially opposed the renaming plan, he now sees it as an “exciting opportunity to give these birds names that celebrate them—rather than some person in the past,” he says to NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce. And, in the end, the birds won’t care what ornithologists decide to call them. “Names are important for humans,” Nol tells NPR. More than likely, the birds’ new names will reflect their characteristics or identifying features. For example, the Wilson’s warbler is a songbird named after 19th-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson. But the bird has a distinctive patch of black feathers on its head, so renaming it something like “black-capped warbler” could help birders know what to look for, says Cooper, who now hosts a National Geographic birding show, to the New York Times’ Katrina Miller. “There’s no reason to have a person’s name attached to a bird, because it doesn’t tell you anything about the bird,” Cooper says to the Times.”

‘Why are we naming birds after people?’ Behind the plan to scrap many bird names
by Elizabeth Pennisi  /  3 November 2023

“This week, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced that, “in an effort to address past wrongs,” it was moving to change the common English names of up to 80 species of birds found in the United States and Canada that are named after people. The society, a scientific group which maintains the official list of bird names for North America, said the changes are needed because many names are “clouded by racism and misogyny.” For example, some species are named after men who owned slaves, endorsed white supremacy, or participated in activities now seen as unjust. The Scott’s oriole (Icterus parisorum) found in the southwestern United States, for instance, is named for Winfield Scott, a general who served in the Civil War and oversaw the forced expulsion of Indigenous people from their lands.

In recent years, scientific societies and academic institutions have come under increasing pressure to change the names of species, journals, prizes, programs, and facilities that honor figures who committed atrocities. The push has led to fierce debates over whether species should continue to have common or Latin names that honor, for example, the fascist dictators Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. For now, AOS is planning to change only the common English names, not the two-part Latin scientific names, of species. And many birders are encouraging the group to replace eponymous names with monikers that describe how the bird looks or behaves. For example, the Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla) named after the Scottish American ornithologist Alexander Wilson could become the black-capped or spotted-tailed warbler. ScienceInsider recently spoke about the initiative with Sushma Reddy, an ornithologist at the University of Minnesota and secretary of AOS’s governing council. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: When you started studying birds, did you think about their common names?
A: Yes. I have in the past actually named [newly described] species for people. So, when this issue came up I had to really think about why and how we do what we do. And rethink the rationale for why we named certain species after people. This is an issue that people have brought up [in the past]. There are articles that came out in the 19th century that said: “Why are we naming birds after people? It’s not very descriptive.” It’s really clear that who has a species named after them can be really biased. It says a lot about who had access to or facilitated science, and who was excluded. More than 90% of the names are male and white, of European descent. Then people started to look into these names and realize that a lot of them had really, really checkered pasts. They said things that were incredibly racist, even if we put it in the context of the time, [or] took part in incredibly harmful things. Do we want to honor those people?

Q: Within AOS, was the idea of changing the names controversial?
A: I would say this is probably one of the most controversial subjects we’ve had to deal with in the bird world for a very long time. Everyone had an opinion. Over conversations, we all came to pretty much the same conclusion: Yes, we have to change all the names. The debate really centered on whether we should change some names or all the names, [and] how do we preserve some of the history of ornithology while also making [the field] more welcoming [to those who find the names offensive].

Q: Do you have any names in mind that you’d like to see changed?
A: I have some ideas of eponymous names [that] are not very descriptive and not very useful when I’m trying to remember what a warbler or thrush looks like. I struggle with that.

Q: What happens next?
A: Our next step is to start thinking about how we’re going to put together this [renaming] committee and who should be on it. We’ve come up with some guidelines. We want people who are ornithologists and taxonomists, of course. But we also want social scientists and experts in communication, so we can really think about other aspects that scientists don’t normally consider when they’re naming species. We want to represent diverse voices, make sure that Black, Indigenous, Latino, and people from different ethnic groups are represented. We’d like to have this committee set up in 2024. And we want to invite the public to help us come up with creative names for these birds. There are a lot of people who love birds, so this is going to get quite exciting.”