Bird Names for Birds

Wilson Warbler Leucadia Photo by Steve Brad

I remember my first one. Bright yellow underneath, yellow-olive back and wings. Striking black cap. “What is that bird?” I whispered to my friend. “Wilson’s Warbler.”  Huh. That’s a disappointing name for such a stunner. Who was Wilson?  Why did HE get this bird?  How will I ever remember that name?  It just didn’t seem right.

A bird’s species’ name can describe many things: looks (Black-headed Grosbeak), behavior (Greater Roadrunner), habitat (Pacific Loon), voice (Mountain Chickadee).Or it might carry a person’s name (Wilson’s Warbler). Such an eponym or honorific name doesn’t describe a bird’s attributes. It simply honors someone. That someone might be a famous naturalist (Say’s Phoebe) or a renown wildlife artist (Audubon’s Oriole) or an explorer who collected birds (Lewis’s Woodpecker). Or maybe just the daughter, sister, or wife of the guy who delivered (read “killed”) the bird for the taxonomist who first classified it as a new species (Lucy’s, Grace’s and Virginia’s warblers, respectively).

In summer, 2020, the North American birding community began to realize in earnest the problems with that last type of naming system, as a wider movement to address racial injustice arose nationwide. While corporations from PepsiCo to Disney began to change racially insensitive brand names and images, a group of birders (organized under “Bird Names for Birds”) began pushing back on the idea of eponyms. Living in the 1700s and 1800s,many of those honored had actively participated in the oppression, enslavement, or even killing of people of other cultures; some had pursued inherently racist studies such as phrenology. The controversy about such names mirrors similar conflicts over monuments to Confederate soldiers and colonialists. Eponymous bird names basically function as verbal statues.

The American Ornithological Society(AOS) determines the official common names of North American bird species. To change or not to change eponyms—that was the question facing the AOS. Several concerns have emerged around replacing these names. For example, some suggest that honorific names provide an opportunity to teach ornithological history. But far more effective approaches can do that. How do you decide who’s “good” and who’s “bad?”  You need make no judgment about the honoree because all eponyms present a problem. Regardless of their backgrounds, the honorees’ names bear no relationships to the birds themselves. Therefore all eponyms create barriers for novice birders.

Another concern focuses on the stability of names, since some have been used for years. Yet since I first started birding in the 1970s, scores of names have changed. As Kenn Kaufman (author of the field guide Birds of North America) pointed out, most of the eponyms today have been around for considerably fewer than 200 years. That’s hardly long-term, in the big picture. Indigenous languages have names for birds that have been used far longer.

But stability is a concern in another way. Every species has both a common name and a scientific (genus and species) name. Common names are rather arbitrary and tend to be used most frequently by non-academics. The assignment of scientific names follows a rigorous process, overseen by organizations globally charged with maintaining standardization and archiving of all species. Thus, the function of scientific names is inherently different, and stability is crucial for that function. Assigning a new scientific name would be like changing your social security number, while changing a common name would be like taking a new last name after getting married. Both refer to the same individual but the ramifications of changing them differ dramatically. For now, advocates recommend focusing only on common names—the typical way most people refer to the birds. Scaling one mountain at a time.

David Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, stated, “The hardest part will probably be convincing the birding community that this is worth the trouble.” Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association noted, “We believe that the biggest threat that birds face isn’t glass collisions or outdoor cats or even global warming, as dire as those threats are. It’s being ignored to death. Not enough people know and not enough people care.” One way to help people know and care is to use informative, obvious, not-offensive-to-anyone species names.

As a first step, AOS no long considers eponyms for new species. But more than 150 species from Canada to Panama currently bear people’s names—from Vaux’s Swift to Wilson’s Warbler. A new AOS ad hoc committee will tackle this issue. This committee has considerable work ahead.

And just imagine. For one brief moment in time, all of us could be at the same step as the great David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, stumbling and grasping for the new names. Hey, it’s a Wilson’s Warb … no, wait. New name. It’s, it’s…don’t tell me. A Black-capped Warbler!

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