Bird Names For Birds

The concern about eponymous and honorific common bird names is not new. But the movement to see these names changed is.

Eponyms (a person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named) and honorific common bird names (a name given to something in honor of a person) are problematic because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it. The names that these birds currently have—for example, Bachman’s Sparrow—represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts and do not uphold the morals and standards the bird community should memorialize.

The vast majority of eponymous common names were applied to birds by European and American naturalists during a period of time known as colonialism, when (primarily) European countries subjugated, exploited, and populated territories held by non-white peoples. To legitimize this endeavor, the concept of race as a classification system was developed, and the white “race” and civilization were considered superior to all others. The impacts of colonialism were global, and the false concept of race used to justify colonialism resulted in the reality of racism, a reality which has structured societies, interactions, and even survival ever since.

Eponymous common names are essentially verbal statues. They were made to honor the benefactor in perpetuity, and as such reflect the accomplishments and values that the creator esteemed. We are not bound by either the intention or the regard; we should make decisions about who and what we honor based on our own values, values that create a more equitable world for all. By continuing to use eponymous common bird names, we continue to reference and honor our distressful colonial heritage and the racism that was a direct consequence of this malicious exploitation. This is unacceptable, and we must do better.

Concerned individuals have been following the system and structure used by the American Ornithological Society (AOS), and specifically it’s North American Classification and Nomenclature Committee (NACC), for years by submitting formal proposals following NACC guidelines requesting that certain bird species with problematic common names be changed.

Current events in 2020 have renewed societal emphasis on social justice and have shown that the time to reevaluate is now, and are largely why this initiative formalized. We are overdue individually, as groups and communities, and as a society to reevaluate our biases, remove barriers of all kinds, and be better. 

Bird Names For Birds—both the initiative and the actual bird names—will not end racism. It won’t even end all of the EDI problems within the bird community. However, it is one step. It is one problem that the bird community can be self-aware of, acknowledge, and rectify.