Bird Names Changing?

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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.

From the Washington Post, November 1, 2023

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……

12 thoughts on “Bird Names Changing?”

  1. I do think there are two very good reasons to rename birds named after people.

    One is that these names indeed often honor the wrong people. Imagine there was a Hitler’s Sparrow named by some fanatical Nazi – would we really want to have a figure like Hitler be honored in this way? While this example is fictional, some of the actual bird names may honor people who also have committed crimes that make them way beyond honoring.

    The other is an even more fundamental one – naming birds after people rather than after their characteristics reflects a very human-centric attitude – an attitude that does nothing to promote the conservation of birds, as they are described based on a very accidental link to humans, rather than their fundamental properties.

    Compared to these two reasons, the rationale you provide – such as the trouble in revising bird guides – seems very minor to me.

    1. You make a really good point. These are very anthropocentric things to do in terms of naming animals.. never thought of it that way.

      However, I think that rather than renaming every bird of past to fit the now, we just change how we name moving forward. This saves from the logistical issue of renaming every thing that has a flaw in it. And like he mentioned in his writing, this is a very slippery slope.

  2. Ah yes Roger, you’re so right. We may not be proud of certain aspects of our history, but it is our history. I can see the arguments for and against but there are bigger issues to resolve and better ways to do so. Many of the street names have changed in the town where I lived for forty years. The changes must have been costly, cause confusion, and in some cases will no doubt be offensive to some. A hard one. Regarding Adam naming all the creatures, true, but I don’t think the detail was there. I suspect a bird was named ‘Bird’ Reminds me of a story my friend told me, he is a bird watcher. He was on a trail through a protected reserve, in Africa, with a local guide. On seeing and hearing something interesting he asked the guide, in local dialect ‘what’s that’. The guide replied – ‘Inyoni’. (Bird)

  3. Thanks, Roger. I also have to wonder how many people of color are really paying much attention to this – they really have bigger issues to think about and deal with.

  4. Yes, changing bird names is necessary. White (and male) supremacy runs deep, so deep that it’s in bird names. As a white person, you don’t experience the systemic oppression and racism that people of color do their whole lives. It’s wild that you feel so confident complaining about this minor inconvenience. You mean trying to be more aware and inclusive requires effort?? Whaaa?? Humans created naming systems, and we can change those systems when they’re no longer working for us.

    Presentism and ignorance are terrible arguments for not changing something problematic. “We can’t judge them! How were they supposed to know that owning other people and treating them like animals was bad??” “I don’t know who that is or care to learn and I don’t have a problem with it, so why do you?” Yikes.

    Also, bringing Christianity and its legends and myths into your article is weird, especially with how much Christianity has promoted colonization and indoctrination of other cultures throughout history.

    When we name a creature after the human who first claimed to look at it, we are trivializing and centering humans (mostly white male humans) in a world that has nothing to do with us. We get to discover, analyze, and appreciate the world around us, not claim it with a little flag saying “mine!”. How would you like someone “discovering” you and naming you “Clark’s humanoid”? Naming something after the human that supposedly saw it first weirdly centers humans (and since it’s a specific name, a specific human) within our love and admiration of birds. At least the northern flicker has its own name and not someone else’s. Also a killdeer’s call includes what sounds like ‘killdeer’. ‘Flicker’ could describe the flash of wing shaft colors or its speckled chest or white rear during flight. The word ‘common’ tells you it’s fairly common to see. Not sure why you think that’s these names aren’t descriptive. But it’s a good point, we could ALSO rename these to be more descriptive (but that wasn’t your real issue, was it).

    I don’t think I can follow these posts anymore if this is really what you think about something so trivial as changing the name of some birds to not honor random, dead, white people, many of whom were racist. Humans created this system, and we can change it. The purpose is clearly to be more respectful, inclusive, and helpful to actual people, and a bonus is the bird finally gets its own name. The least you can do as a white person is not whine about the unfairness and inconvenience of it all, yikes.

  5. Cassandra, I totally understand your point. I am certainly not in favor of naming anything for anyone who is racist, sexist, mysogynist, or in other such ways repugnant. But renaming birds is very different than renaming a street, building, or park after some clearly nasty person.

    First, do the names Baird, Townsend, Sabine, Ross, or MacGillivray mean anything to you? Do they evoke any unpleasantness? I doubt it and I doubt if very many people would be able to recognize those people. And I cannot find anything negative about MacGillivray or Baird except that they were friends of Audubon, the one name people would recognize. So exactly what criteria do we use to rid the ornithological world of these names? How about Lucy’s Warbler – named after Lucy Baird, a daughter?

    If we ornithologists want to get rid of names of people so the name is more descriptive, then fine, do that with every bird with a non- or vaguely descriptive name. That will be messy but doable and solves everyone’s issue.

    But then the issue of scientific names comes up – that’s an entirely different story because it has major international ramifications.

    Get rid of Baird, no more bairdii in the bird world? How about Baird’s Tapir? How about all the animals named by Baird – many.
    So my argument is not that we should honor nasty people, but that this is not a simple issue, not at all a minor inconvenience, and it opens up a giant can of worms.

    But I appreciate your comments.

  6. Your newsletter is spot on. I couldn’t have stated it better myself and in fact shared your letter with many friends and posted it on my blog. Better that the AOU expend their energy on something more worthwhile.

  7. I really appreciate your perspective and wish more people would speak up.

    When I was finishing my degree last fall, I constantly had to battle the culture of “this person had one character flaw, let’s erase him entirely…” people like Aldo Leopold and John Muir. It gets to be ridiculous.

    Yes, there are people who harbor awful opinions who still contributed to science. What we do is acknowledge these things and move on. We do better next time. People seem to be on a rampage to erase all the bad things in an attempt to censor life. It seems like we just end up wasting all this time and resources.

    1. The way our culture is heading, we’re about to erase everyone, because somehow, somewhere, we’ve all committed “sins”. Where does it stop? Where do we draw the line? No longer are there shades of gray. Everything is clear cut – black or white.

      We’re certainly not condoning slavery, nor any other offensive behavior, but to wipe out a person’s entire history regardless of any good they’ve done…

      You made an excellent point when you brought up the fact about the period of time, too. For instance do we write off the Roman Empire and their accomplishments because of the cruelties performed in the colosseum? Throughout history, humans have learned, and grown, and that’s what we should remember.

  8. Somebody needs to get to work and dig up some dirt on Lucy Baird (Lucy’s Warbler). Surely she did something terrible that would justify her name being expunged.

  9. Pingback: The Naming Controversy – Ornithology

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