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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Explained: The debate in American ornithology to change ‘harmful English bird names’

Many want renaming of birds named after people linked to racism, slavery and White supremacy. Others say changing the names of birds would lead to confusion, and that it is akin to erasing an important part of history.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 25, 2021 9:20:23 am
Critics, however, have said changing the names of birds would lead to confusion, and that it is akin to erasing an important part of history. (Photo Source:

Earlier this month, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) Council announced it is forming an ad hoc committee that will be tasked with developing recommendations to identify and change ‘harmful English bird names.’

What is the ad hoc committee being set up by AOS?

While this committee will not change English bird names, it will be responsible for recommending processes that will include the perspectives of various stakeholders “in the broader ornithological and birding communities. Through the formation of this committee, the AOS leadership seeks to facilitate a constructive discussion, learn from varying perspectives, and broaden and diversify participation in the process of determining the future of eponymous English bird names, while recognizing the important role that bird names play in avian research and conservation,” AOS has said.

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When did this debate start?

In August 2020, ornithologists Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in which they argued that birds should not have eponymous (birds that are named after people) or honorific names. Their objection to eponymous bird names stems from the fact that some birds are named after people who have been associated with racism, slavery and white supremacy.

More recently, two more ornithologists, Corina Newsome and Olivia Wang, spoke up in a separate Washington Post report about the need to make the field of ornithology more inclusive.

Last year, Newsome, who is a Black ornithologist, was hired as a Community Engagement Manager by non-profit Georgia Audubon. She is one of the organisers of the #BlackBirdersWeek, which was created to educate the birding community about the challenges faced by Black birders.

Critics, however, have said changing the names of birds would lead to confusion, and that it is akin to erasing an important part of history.

Why are eponymous names considered problematic?

Foley and Rutter are the creators of the website Bird Names for Birds (BN4B) that aims to remove all eponymous English common bird names. Instead of naming birds after people who discovered them, the ornithologists say an alternative is to give names based on their attributes, such as plumage, behaviour, habitat and what they sound like.

AOS notes that while historically, scientists have recognised important contributions of other scientists by using their names for plants and animals, eponymous English names for birds, especially those of people who supported or promoted racist behaviours, need to be evaluated “in the context of whether use of the names may be exclusionary or harmful.”

“AOS is committed to anti-racism and unequivocally supports increasing diversity and inclusion in ornithology, including efforts to change problematic bird names that are harmful or otherwise act as barriers to participation in ornithology and the enjoyment of birds,” AOS notes.

Which are some birds with eponymous names?

BN4B has recorded the names of 154 birds found in North America, including Middle America and the Caribbean, that have been named after people. Some examples of birds named after people associated with racism and slavery include Bachman’s sparrow, Townsend’s warbler, Bendire’s thrasher, Hammond’s flycatcher and McCown’s longspur.

How many bird names have been changed over this so far?

As of now, two such successful proposals are a petition to change the name of the bird previously known as “Oldaquaw”, and another that was known as “McCown’s longspur”.

“Oldsquaw” is now known as Long-tailed duck. It’s older name, BN4B notes, is a derogatory and offensive as it references sounds made by a group of elderly Indigenous groups chattering. However, when a proposal outlining this issue was accepted, the reasoning acknowledged that inclusion was not the motivating issue.

The McCown’s longspur is now known as the thick-billed longspur. The bird was named after John McCown, who accidentally collected it while out shooting birds. BN4B notes that McCown was a part of the Confederacy and fought for the right of states to preserve slavery. The longspur was named after McCown by one George N Lawrence because the former was the first person to have collected this specimen.

The renaming proposal was initially rejected by the ASO, saying ethics and morals could not be a deciding factor for naming birds. But last year, the ASO agreed to change the name after a new proposal was submitted.

The Bachman’s sparrow has been named after Rev. John Bachman, who was against the abolition of slavery. The Townsend’s warbler is named after John Kirk Townsend, a naturalist in the 1800s who dug out skulls from the graves of Native Americans to work on his theories in the fields of phrenology (a study that used skull sizes as a factor in determining the superiority of a race) and “scientific racism”, BN4B notes.

One of the most well-known names in the field is that of John James Audobon, who catalogued North America’s birds in the book “Birds of North America”. Two birds, Audubon’s shearwater and Audubon’s oriole, have been named after him. But his past is considered problematic because of his participation in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, in which the Mexican army was defeated. Audubon is believed to have decapitated Mexican soldiers so that he could send their heads to one Samuel George Morton, a practitioner of phrenology.

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