From the Washington Post, November 1, 2023: “The American Ornithological Society (AOU) says it will alter the names of North American birds named after humans, starting with up to 80 of them.” Their justifications are that the names are of people with negative reputations – endorsing or participating in slavery, for example – and that the names are not descriptive. Let me ponder those reasons a bit.
The statues of civil war heroes of the South, plaques bearing names of racists, and even Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, have been removed in the last few years. These monuments were placed there by civic groups or governments, representing numbers of people. Bird names, like Scott’s Oriole, named after Major General Winfield Scott by Darius Couch, a U.S. Civil War general, to commemorate his superior in the Mexican-American War, General Winfield Scott, were named by one person. Are we to remove Scott’s name because a Civil War figure named the bird? LeConte’s sparrow was named by John James Audubon for John Lawrence Leconte, an entomologist. Should we remove the latter LeConte’s name from his sparrow because Audubon honored him? And exactly how do we judge people who lived a century or more ago? Lots of long-ago ornithologists shot birds, lots of them – how about getting rid of their names? The whole business gets tricky.
The other reason the AOU wants to change the names is that they are not descriptive. Sure, Scott’s Oriole, LeConte’s Sparrow, and Clark’s Grebe don’t tell you much about the bird, but neither do the Common Crow, Common Tern, Whimbrel, Northern Flicker, Killdeer, or King Eider. Is the AOU going to change all those names now? And what about the International Ornithological Committee (IOC) that established the official English common names of all the birds of the world? Are they going to accept these name changes?
And what about scientific names? Townsend’s Solitaire, named after John Kirk Townsend who collected skulls of Native Americans, has the scientific name Myadestes townsendi. To be consistent in getting rid of offensive names, that name should be changed as well, but that requires going through the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).
I think we should just leave the names as they are. They reflect history and frankly, the opinion of one man (usually) who did the naming. And, I suspect, most birdwatchers don’t have a clue as to who these people are. (Is Sabine offensive to you – do you know who he is?) Besides the technical and ethical issues, every field guide, book, and checklist is going to have to be changed. And life-listers are not going to be happy to have to make these changes. These are people who gripe because the Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted Flickers got lumped into the Northern Flicker.
OK, I understand the motivation and reasoning of those who want to make those changes. And there are lots of other areas of American society that might deserve those changes – 1441 federally-recognized place-names contain racist or sexist slurs. We’ve changed the names of sports teams but there are hundreds of school buildings and school mascots that probably need changing.
But changing bird names? Is that really necessary?
P.S. As I was writing this blog, one of my readers sent me this comment:
“Actually Adam named every animal on the planet According to God’s Word in Genesis chapter 2 verse 18 -20.”
That would solve this whole issue of naming……