Dropping NamesReading Time: 4 minutes
American Birds Are Getting New Names. Now Comes the Hard Part., Scientists announced they’re changing the names of birds named after people. Things are about to get complicated., The American Ornithological Society is renaming birds named after people. Now
Last November, the American Ornithological Society, or AOS, announced that it would change the common names of all American birds named after people. There are 152 such ‘eponymic’ names (that is, birds that are named after a specific person, like Bicknell’s Thrush) on the AOS’ official checklist, and the group is planning to start with between 70 and 80 species predominantly found in the U.S. and Canada. In the coming years, birds like Cooper’s Hawk, Wilson’s Snipe, and Lincoln’s Sparrow will be stripped of their eponyms and given new common English names.
The eponymic naming issue has been heating up in the bird world for a few years now. Birds got their English names when they were ‘discovered’ by Western scientists, or otherwise identified as a new species. This meant ornithologists had the honor of coming up with whatever moniker they wanted, and frequently named birds in honor of a benefactor, a friend, or the person who shot the first known specimen.
But a growing number of ornithologists and nonscientist birders are questioning why we’re stuck with names decided on a whim hundreds of years ago, especially when the names aren’t very good. Some offensive names were changed long ago, like the 2000 transition of the bird now known as the Long-tailed Duck, but the focus has since shifted to birds named for unsavory historical figures. The movement really began in 2020, when the group Bird Names for Birds successfully petitioned the AOS to change the name of a species of grassland bird then named after Confederate Maj. Gen. John P. McCown to the inoffensive (and more descriptive) Thick-billed Longspur.
The AOS took a broader look at eponymic birds in the wake of its Longspur decision, and its November announcement landed as a surprise across the natural sciences. Rather than attempt the impossible task of reviewing the people with birds named after them one by one, the AOS said it would just scrap them all and start from scratch.
But that’s where the real challenge comes in—because lots of bird names are pretty bad. Not offensive bad, like named after a Confederate general, but just unsatisfactory bad. There was never any standardization for how common bird names were granted, which means those names are all over the place and provide little guidance for what renaming should look like.
Many species are named after some prominent feature or identifying trait, like the Red-faced Warbler or the Swallow-tailed Kite. Others are named for their habitat (Pine Warbler, Boreal Owl); their relative size or range compared to similar birds (Lesser Yellowlegs, Eastern Bluebird); their vocalizations (Warbling Vireo, Piping Plover); or the location where they were first discovered (Savannah Sparrow, Kentucky Warbler). Others still have functionally random names, like the onomatopoeic Bobolink and Veery, or Osprey, which is derived from the Old French word ospreit, itself coming from a Latin word meaning ‘bird of prey.’
None of these categories are universally satisfying. ‘Prominent feature’ names seem to be the most popular because they help birders make an identification, but species like Red-bellied Woodpecker and Ring-necked Duck, whose identifying marks are almost impossible to see if you’re not holding the bird in your hand, have long been a source of annoyance for birders. Plus, many ‘prominent feature’ names aren’t really very helpful, in that they may only apply to the male bird and not the female (like the Black-throated Blue Warbler), or that the feature only exists during part of the year (Bay-breasted Warbler).
Imperfect names are the rule, not the exception. Calling a bird a Lesser Yellowlegs is only helpful when it’s standing next to a Greater Yellowlegs. Naming a bird after its vocalization is only helpful when the bird is vocalizing, and onomatopoeic names aren’t really ‘helpful’ at all. Perhaps worst of all, some of the dozens of species that are named after particular geographic locations have ludicrous ties between species and spot: Cape May Warblers and Philadelphia Vireos only migrate through their namesake cities, and the number of people who see Connecticut Warblers in Connecticut each year can probably be counted on one hand.
The point is, it’s going to be hard to come up with new names we can all agree on, and it’s not clear how the AOS will embark upon doing so. The group has said it will ‘conduct an open, inclusive, and scientifically rigorous pilot program in 2024 to develop its new approach to English bird names in the U.S. and Canada’—but there are few specifics yet, and no easy way to organize the public and whittle down suggestions in the lawless and nonsensical world of bird names. But the AOS has committed to change: Unlike the closed-door decisions of the past, this will be a public process. The plan is to take suggestions—from field marks, Indigenous names, colloquialisms … from anywhere—narrow it down, somehow, to a few options, and let people decide.
Though it sounds daunting, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. For the first time, the public will have the chance to think deeply about the birds we love and come up with new things to call them. As I found when colleagues and I recently thought through new names for common eponymic birds in Maine, this is a process full of exciting questions: What makes a Barrow’s Goldeneye a Barrow’s Goldeneye? What about the Cooper’s Hawk—its power? Its size?—should be included in its name?
The point wasn’t that the names we suggested—’Carbonated Sparrow’ for Nelson’s Sparrow or ‘Summit Thrush’ for Bicknell’s Thrush—were perfect, but rather that we were able to look at common birds with new insight. Our new bird names won’t be ideal—none of them are—but, for the first time, they will belong to us.
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