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.

Despite these efforts, there has never been a proposal accepted for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) reasons. 

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. 

The following events in 2020 transpired: 

On June 22 a letter with 182 co-signers was sent to leadership at AOS and the NACC, the entity controlling North American bird taxonomy and nomenclature. We requested that they acknowledge the role that eponymous common bird names play in perpetuating the effects of colonialism, and asked that they indicate first steps to address this issue by close of business on August 15 (the last day of NAOC 2020—a date chosen since AOS council meetings will take place that week and there will be a large focused audience). 

You can read the letter and who it was addressed to here: http://bit.ly/RequestAOSChangeBirdNames 

AOS released a statement on June 30, a week after receiving our letter. It did not directly address #BirdNamesForBirds, but instead focused on re-reviewing one species (McCown’s Longspur) and leaned into their current process and guidelines—particularly on determining how offensive or harmful a name is. However, the subjectiveness inherent in this approach, particularly when adjudicated by a group of white people, is problematic. 

You can read the June 30 statement here: https://americanornithology.org/statement-on-mccowns-longspur-naming-issue/ 

Instead, the ornithological and birding communities should simply say no to all eponymous common names. It’s more than just McCown’s Longspur—it’s Townsend’s Warbler, and Audubon’s Oriole, and even Wilson’s Plover, since Alexander Wilson exploited Indigenous people’s help and knowledge. There are ~150 eponymous English common bird names in North America, and there is not one good reason to keep them. There are folks behind the initiative who are doing incredible research on each and every one of these people, and the findings are shocking.

You can see the collated list of North American eponymous species names here: https://bit.ly/CurrentBirdNames 

Our original letter to the AOS has become a petition, because this is a bird community issue. Birds are everywhere. Their names impact anyone and everyone—ornithologists, birders, ecologists, even people who hear birds referenced on TV or in movies. 

Our focus is strictly on English common names. We are not changing scientific names, we are not replacing English names with Indigenous names (except for some Hawaiian language cases), and we are not offering any name alternatives at this time (although proposals for the NACC are being written that offer previously published alternate names). 

You can read and sign the petition here: http://bit.ly/BirdNamesForBirdsPetition

AOS put out another statement on July 8 that directly referred to the petition. The statement’s synopsis is that the issue of eponymous common bird names has been publicly acknowledged and that they have committed to releasing another statement at the end of NAOC 2020, as we had requested. 

You can read that statement here: https://americanornithology.org/whats-in-a-name-more-than-you-might-think/ 

We now wait for the next statement. In the meantime, the group behind this initiative continues to do work in various areas as stated above—from writing proposals for these bird species to doing research on each of the individuals that these names are honoring to ongoing communication efforts.  

You can view various resources and articles that discuss bird names and other related topics here: https://bit.ly/BirdNameArticles 

Follow on Twitter and Instagram: @BirdNames4Birds

Hashtag: #BirdNamesForBirds