The Naming Controversy

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I earlier discussed the proposal by the American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) to change the common names of birds named after people. Let me add a little more here. Will this lead to a change in scientific names as well?

Thick-billed Longspur, once called McCown’s Longspur

The AOU changed McCown’s Longspur to the Thick-billed Longspur because of McCown’s support of slavery as a Confederate general but the scientific name Rhynchophanes mccownii still includes his name. Isn’t that still honoring him? There are other American birds that pose this same issue such as. Myadestes townsendii for the Townsend’s Solitaire. There are many more in the U.S. and worldwide. Did you know that the genus Attila was named after Attila the Hun? How about Cacicus montezuma, after the Aztec ruler? Or Calamotropha dagamae, named after Vasco de Gama, Portuguese explorer and colonizer? And a really odd one, the Pygmy batis, Batis perkeo, named after a famous German dwarf? Are these offensive? If we start changing common names because they are offensive or don’t add to the description of the bird, the next logical step is to change scientific names because scientific names have the same problem. It makes little sense to apply those criteria to common names and ignore scientific names with the same issue.

Why leave the scientific names of Baird’s Sandpiper and Baird’s Calidris bairdii and Centronyx bairdii if Baird is removed from the common name? Calidris, from the Greek, refers to a gray-colored waterbird first mentioned by Aristotle. Centronyx means “spur claw.” The genus names are descriptive, but the species name is not. Should bairdii be changed? Should we even delete Baird’s name? Was Baird a bad guy? Not that I can tell from  his biography on Wikipedia. He was actually a pretty impressive biologist, environmentalist, and, among many other accomplishments the first curator at the Smithsonian Institution and a founding member of the American Ornithologist’s Union. He seems to be a perfect example of someone after whom a bird ought to be named. Removing his name would be rather insulting, I think. And what about William Cooper (Cooper’s Hawk, Accipter cooperii) one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and who first described the Evening Grosbeak? And many others. I think it would be a shame to rid bird names of people who reflect the history of ornithology, even if their personal history might be odious by today’s standards.

Changing scientific names, because of the voluminous rules established in by the 306-page code book of International Commission Zoological Nomenclature (IUCN), would be a terrific mess. Since the ICZN is used by the worldwide scientific community, local changes, that is, those that might be proposed by the U.S., will not be recognized.

The Audubon Society opted not to change its name, not because of John James Audubon’s history but because of the society’s history. The Audubon name is synonymous with bird protection; changing it would only weaken that reputation. Changing bird names ignores ornithological history. Like the ongoing controversy surrounding textbooks, if history is unpleasant, should we ignore it?

6 thoughts on “The Naming Controversy”

  1. Dr. E. A Schreiber

    I completely agree with Roger Lederer. Thank you for your comments. We should not change scientific names of birds. The people for whom these birds were named, in many cases, have contributed greatly to conservation and education. Changing the names will not, today, further a more equitable attitude in our population.

  2. I agree, Dr. Lederer. Not everyone whom birds were named after were “terrible people.” Many were actually very important contributors to science by discovering species of birds and animals that were unknown at the time.

    Renaming birds is going to be an extremely arduous undertaking and will take a long time to complete. Disagreements will ensue. Who will be likely to take on such a burden?

    I wonder if this trend is going to carry over into renaming every animal on the planet who bears the name of the person who discovered it?

  3. Sensible anylasis Roger
    Concerning the controversy in changing the common names of birds doesn’t make any sense,in order words it can result to distasteful to the ornithological world

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