Bird Names For Birds Introduction During April 2021 Community Congress Event

The following are transcripts of the panelist bio we submitted and the introduction we presented at the April Community Congress Event on bird names.
A recording of the event can be found on YouTube here: http://bit.ly/BirdNamesApril2021
*Hyperlinks have been added to this digital version for additional reference.

——————

Panelist Bio, presented by Diversity & Inclusion host

Bird Names for Birds is organized by Jordan Rutter, Gabriel Foley, Alex Holt, and Jess McLaughlin. Jordan, Gabriel, and Alex are here today to represent the core team behind the historical biographies and communications of this grassroots initiative to remove eponymous bird names.

—————–

A screenshot of the event at the beginning of the introduction given by Jordan Rutter for Bird Names For Birds

Introduction, presented by Jordan Rutter, Bird Names For Birds Co-founder

Thanks! Bird Names for Birds is a grassroots initiative advocating for the removal of eponymous common bird names and a review of the nomenclatural system to aid in decolonizing birding and ornithology and make it more welcoming and inclusive.

Christian Cooper’s experience in Central Park brought social justice issues to the forefront of the birding community, not because it was a new issue, but because it was one we could no longer ignore or not react to. So Gabriel and I spoke up about bird names in June of 2020, and how eponymous names don’t reflect the welcoming, inclusive community we know birding can be. 

As a community, we have an incredible opportunity ahead of us that could truly unite every bird community member. Birds are what link our community together, and it is through their names that we communicate our connection, whether we are ornithologists, birders, or the general public just enjoying birds in their everyday lives.

We have the opportunity to include everyone, no matter what, as we move forward. This is our chance to include Indigenous people and Canadians and Mexicans and Jamaicans and everyone else impacted by these birds we all share. We can include young birders and ornithology students. And we can acknowledge in a concrete way the harm the colonialism that supported ornithology has had, and take one small step towards repairing that harm.

We have the opportunity to help put everyone at the same starting line because someone who has been looking at birds for 80 years will be learning the new name of a bird, the same way and at the same time as a person just discovering the magic of birds. And as we all learn those names, we can share about the threats those birds face or their conservation needs. What if we could inspire the next generation and create a ripple effect of people who care about birds or even have a bird focused career? 

We can also actually teach this history. Not erase or ignore or forget about it. We should shine a spotlight on our past and use it to show how we got here and why we’re not going to carry on this way. We do not need airbrushed myths of so-called “Great Men” enshrined in our everyday vocabulary. We need the true histories—both good and bad—laid out for all so that we may learn from them.   

The changes must also be all encompassing; every eponymous common name needs replacement. We know that won’t happen quickly—and to be done right, it shouldn’t happen quickly [not literally overnight that is]—but it needs to happen. The unique traits of each species deserve to be celebrated, rather than an eternal memorial to the moment they were first collected. 

However, Bird Names for Birds has been adamant about not proposing alternative names or solutions itself. For true success and forward movement, those elements should be of, by, and for the community. Without addressing the system that encouraged and perpetuated eponyms, the literal name changes will just be window dressing. 

We can do this though. I know we can. We can all be leaders in a way that I don’t think we ever realized before. There are 149 species with eponymous names in North America, from Canada to Panama. Changing all of them seems like a monumental task, but it appears much smaller when you recall the 1957 Check-list, where the AOU changed 188 common bird names just that year, and birders didn’t have the luxury of an eBird update to help remember them.

I know that this short event is not going to be enough, and that just because it ends doesn’t mean things are fixed. So please keep the conversation going—a conversation that is not just about nomenclatural technicalities, historical biographies, or even potential new names. It’s ultimately about who we are as a community and how much we value diversity and inclusion. Learning and discussing more about that is what you can do for this cause and for the community. So join us in asking questions and listening and learning. There’s the Bird Names For Birds website with info, resources, and new bios regularly posted by Alex and Jess. The four of us and Bird Names are on social media. We’re here with you. 

The final thing I’ll say is a heart filled thank you. Thank you to the Diversity and Inclusion committee for hosting this event. Thank you audience. I genuinely appreciate everyone attending and engaging today. You are the bird community and I’m grateful to be among you and the birds. 

New Name Announced for a Longspur, But Bird Names For Birds Has Always Said, “It’s More Than Just This One”

(August 9, 2020) The American Ornithological Society’s (AOS) North American Classification Committee (NACC) announced Friday, August 7 night via an email to society members, that a formal change was made to a single bird species’s English common name. Rhynchophanes mccownii, the scientific name for this species and previously called McCown’s Longspur, will now be known as Thick-billed Longspur. The initiative Bird Names for Birds (BNFB) supports this name change and is appreciative of this decision. BNFB remains cautiously optimistic about what will happen next, given there are overarching issues that still need to be addressed and 149 other eponymous bird names in North America alone that need to be reviewed, but little from AOS or NACC acknowledging this. 

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

“This is certainly a positive move, but I hope this now leads to further introspection within ornithology and beyond into other scientific fields,” says Alex Holt of Bird Names for Birds. “McCown wasn’t just a singular anomaly that has now been “solved”, but a single expression of far more deep-rooted issues of colonialism, racism, sexism and other prejudices that have gone unchallenged for too long. Hopefully, by continuing to confront that legacy, we can further break down the barriers around who feels able to get involved with birds and nature.”

This lone name change comes during a period of waiting for the NACC, and AOS at large, to respond to a letter-turned-petition put forth by BNFB. The call requests an acknowledgement of the issue at large regarding eponymous common English bird names and for a plan to address this issue. The petition provided a deadline for AOS to respond by the end of the North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC) on August 15. 

“NACC chose to change the common name of McCown’s Longspur due to ‘heightened awareness of racial issues’, and it’s encouraging to see the results of these conversations that NACC is now having,” says Gabriel Foley of Bird Names for Birds. “I’m looking forward to seeing AOS show leadership on this issue by acknowledging that eponyms are problematic and that they will be changed, and requesting proposals for alternative names.”

In the AOS email announcing this name change it states that “…a transparent proposal process that, since the early 2000’s, has been open to public participation and makes all proposals, votes, and comments publicly available.” By “public participation”, it means that anyone can submit a proposal, not that the public is involved in the review or decision-making process. 

“AOS and NACC are continuing to lean into their current proposal-based system, which leaves concerns regarding the subjectivity that arises in deciding what is ‘too racist’. If AOS and NACC wanted to, they could simply request proposals for alternatives to eponymous common names and eliminate this initial step altogether,” says Jordan Rutter.

“I’m happy they’ve taken this step, but it’s just the first step out of many needed ones. I hope that this creates broader interest in understanding the history of ornithology, and in particular how many of those who contributed greatly to our knowledge of birds also contributed greatly to the harm of their fellow humans- especially BIPOC, women, the disabled and mentally ill, and the LGBTQ community,” says Jess McLaughlin of Bird Names for Birds. “Understanding where our discipline has failed in the past is a key part in building a more inclusive future, where anyone of any background can truly and fully participate in ornithology.”