Birds Named After People

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It is considered the height of arrogance, and now against the rules of nomenclature, for the discoverer of a species to name the organism after his or herself, but many species have been named in honor of others, such as Baird’s Sandpiper, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Bouganvilla. Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823 -1887) was an American naturalist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, herpetologist, and museum curator; Queen Anne (165-1714) was Queen of England; Bouganvilla, discovered by the French botanist Philibert Commerson in Brazil in the 1760s, was named after his friend Louis de Bougainville.

statue of a man holding up a manatee

Some people have had numerous organisms named after them, the common name, scientific name or both. George Wilhelm Steller, born in 1709 in Germany, accompanied Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer, on his 1740-41 exploration of the now-named Bering Strait and Alaska and was the first non-native to set foot on Alaskan soil. Steller discovered six species of birds and mammals on the voyage, two species of which are now extinct (Steller’s Sea Cow and Spectacled Cormorant). Steller’s Jay of the Pacific Northwest indicated to Steller that Alaska was part of North America. (Photo of Steller in Bad Windsheim, Germany.)

The voyage was an arduous one. Shipwrecked on Bering Island, half of the crew died of scurvy in spite of Steller’s efforts to feed them berries and leaves with vitamin C. In spite of hardships, Steller managed to take detailed notes on the flora and fauna of the island and, later, the Russian peninsula Kamchatka. His journals were used by later explorers of the Arctic, including Captain Cook. Later, naturalists named the animals and plants after Steller.

Some of the plants and animals named after George Steller:

There has been a trend lately to change the names of organisms named after people to better reflect their physical description. For example, Rhynchophanes mccownii, is now named “Thick-billed Longspur” rather than “McCown’s Longspur” by the American Ornithological Society. 

McCown’s Longspur is also part of the movement to change the common names of any bird named after a person with unsavory behavior in his (typically white men) background, many of whom engaged in racist acts. For example, John James Audubon owned slaves, and John Kirk Townsend robbed skulls from Native American graves.

I agree with changing names to better explain birds’ appearances – and reject the unsavory behavior reason. By deleting the names of people who were honored by an ornithologist, for whatever reason, deletes history. Most of the names are not offensive simply because most people have no idea who McCown or Townsend were or what they did.

George Steller, after whom so many organisms were named, was a good man and scientist by all accounts but hated by his crew and generally did not get along with others. Should we keep his name on birds, mammals, and plants?

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