The Close of the Bird Names for Birds Petition and End of NAOC 2020

(August 17, 2020) The Bird Names for Birds (BNFB) letter-turned-petion officially timed out per the deadline of the end of the North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC). The 2,555 signatories on the petition requested an acknowledgement of the issue at large regarding eponymous common names and for a plan to address this issue by the American Ornithological Society’s (AOS) North American Classification Committee (NACC). In a July 8, 2020 statement, AOS publicly committed to making a future announcement about this issue by the end of NAOC (August 15, 2020). Despite passing this deadline, no announcement has been made. BNFB commends AOS for acknowledging the importance of diversity in ornithology, but finds their lack of follow-through disappointing. 

“The lack of a further response to Bird Names for Birds from the American Ornithological Society is deeply disappointing,” says Alex Holt of Bird Names for Birds. “At an absolute minimum, we would have hoped to have begun an open and frank discussion around the deeply troubling history that these eponyms bind the field of study to. Until ornithology is willing to confront and deal with the (often very literal) skeletons in its closet, it will be off putting and unwelcoming to talented people from underrepresented backgrounds who would greatly enhance the study and understanding of birds.”

BNFB recognizes that nomenclatural changes take time and that solutions must be prudent and proactive. However, the approach outlined so far by NACC to address future English name changes is essentially the same approach that has resulted in harmful and insensitive decisions and commentary such as the 2000 Long-tailed Duck and the 2011 Kiwikiu decisions. Furthermore, AOS’s July 8 statement that “any dialogue that addresses only a single component trivializes the overall complexity in ways that can create an exclusionary outcome for any constituency whose perspectives are deemed irrelevant.” is in direct opposition to their statement that “AOS unequivocally supports efforts to remove impediments to inclusivity and make ornithology welcoming to all”. AOS has acknowledged that they have “made steps and missteps over [their] long history in adopting new policies to address aspects of systemic oppression”, and the approach so far outlined by AOS is yet another of these missteps. BNFB urges AOS and NACC to re-consider their approach and to provide more transparency and communication to stakeholder groups regarding ongoing discussions and future plans.

“I had been optimistic that AOS would rise to the occasion and show leadership within the bird community and provide a clear way forward with this issue. The problem was clearly defined for them, and support from the community for a solution was obvious.” says Gabriel Foley, of Bird Names for Birds, “Unfortunately, AOS is showing that it falls to community members to lead the way towards a more welcoming ornithology.”

A Thick-billed Longspur sitting on a rock in a priarie.
In August 2020 the species pictured officially had its name changed to Thick-billed Longspur, previously it was McCown’s Longspur. Photo by Gabriel Foley

NACC updated their guidelines in 2019 to provide the committee with a more structured evaluation process for name-change proposals, many of which will likely focus on eponyms (a name derived from another name, such as Townsend’s Warbler). The guidelines rely on the committee members’ ability to weigh the morals of the person whose name provided the eponym against the importance of nomenclatural stability. Scientific names, which, unlike common names, serve as the taxonomic reference manager, are unaffected by these new guidelines.

“It seems obvious that the NACC should be restructured in a way that separates the taxonomy from the nomenclature. Currently the combination of topics [taxonomy and nomenclature] for a volunteer committee is prohibiting real change,” says Jordan Rutter of Bird Names for Birds. “The set up should allow these accomplished experts to focus on their specific field—taxonomy. The nomenclature portion could then have a separate, more diverse and representative group of decision makers.”

“I’m very happy that we have one less eponym (McCown’s Longspur) on the North American checklist. However, I am concerned that AOS and others see this as an endpoint, rather than a first step,” says Jess McLaughlin of Bird Names for Birds. “McCown was no outlier in ornithology’s history, and many other birds still carry small monuments to others from ornithology’s more unsavory corners. Why is the most important feature of a bird, the one we choose to use to define the bird itself, that some person once saw it? Eponyms are problematic on multiple levels, and I am disappointed that AOS hasn’t made a statement specifically addressing the issues we are raising.”

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