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Nearly 80 bird species, some with names with racist roots, are about to be changed

American birds renamed
Posted at 5:03 PM, Nov 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-05 06:50:31-05

After years-long discussion, birds will no longer be named after people — a decision meant to dissociate the animals from problematic eponyms.

The American Ornithological Society announced Wednesday that all common English-language names of bird species named after people will be changed, along with other monikers that have been deemed offensive. In total, approximately 70-80 birds — primarily in the US and Canada — will be renamed.

“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today,” said Colleen Handel, president of the AOS, in a statement.

American birds renamed
Say's phoebe (Sayornis saya) is named for Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The American Ornithological Society has announced that beginning next year, birds named after people will be renamed in an effort to be less exclusionary.

Many birds sport names that come from White men with “objectively horrible pasts,” according to the group Bird Names for Birds, a grassroots initiative that has been advocating for this change. Having their names memorialized in this manner is similar to building a statue in their honor, the group argues.

The Hammond’s flycatcher, for example, is named for William Alexander Hammond, a former US surgeon general. Hammond held racist views toward both Black and Indigenous people, writing that Black people specifically were of “little elevated in mental or physical faculties above the monkey of an organ grinder.”

Judith Scarl, the executive director and CEO of AOS, said in a statement that there has long been historic bias in how birds have been named, and scientists should work to eliminate that bias.

“Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today, and the time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs,” she said.

Though efforts toward renaming birds existed before, the movement gained momentum in 2020, in the midst of large-scale cultural upheaval surrounding racist or otherwise offensive names — like those of sports teams and school buildings. That same year, Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, made headlines after a White woman called the police on him — highlighting some of the prejudices Black people face in the outdoors.

"I would say it added to the need," said AOS president-elect Sara Morris of the Cooper case. "The decision that we've made today to change all eponymous bird names is one that is really getting us away from focusing on what individual people have done or individual names that might be exclusionary and really focusing much more broadly on the birds themselves and how can we invite people into the study and enjoyment of birds."

Morris, who spent part of her childhood in Richmond, said among the birds that can be spotted in this area that will be renamed are Wilson's Snipe, Bonaparte's Gull, Forster's Tern, Cooper's Hawk, Swainson's Thrush, and Wilson's Warbler.

"The Blackburnian warbler is a species that migrates through Richmond, it's gorgeous — please look it up. It is a bird that is primarily black and white with a brilliant orange throat on the male or a more muted orange throat on the female and it is named Blackburnian warbler for Anna Blackburn, who was a patron of ornithology. She simply gave money, she was not the person who found the bird, she was not the person who knew much about that name, and that's a bird whose name would change."

"We do expect that there will be some people that don't agree with this decision. But we also think that people will engage in the information the way that we're expecting it," she added. "There is an a value to using the same names that everyone else is using to make sure that communication is really clear."

Bill Leighty, a board member with the Virginia Society of Ornithology, said he applauds the AOS' effort.

"I'm constantly aware that we came here as Europeans and started naming things and discovering things. And in reality they had been here for thousands of years...the tribes had names for all these birds long before we got here. And so it's a little bit presumptuous for us Europeans to think that we got the right to name in the first place," said Leighty. "I'm a big fan of naming the birds after their markings and their coloration, rather than after somebody that who had claimed to have seen it for the first time."

In 2021, the AOS announced an ad-hoc committee to make recommendations regarding these common English names. The committee was formed in 2022 and released its guidance earlier this year. Wednesday’s move by the AOS is in response to those recommendations, and the renaming project is set to begin next year.