Friday, February 23, 2024

Nature/Opinion: American Ornithological Society set to rename honorific birds

A juvenile Cooper's hawk, perhaps upset that its name is changing/Jim McCormac 

Nature/Opinion: American Ornithological Society set to rename honorific birds

Columbus Dispatch
February 18, 2024

NOTES: The following column takes an oppositional viewpoint to the initiative launched by the American Ornithological Society (AOS) on November 1 of last year. While my initial gut reaction to this mass renaming was negative, I waited some time to think about this, and better process all sides before opining. While from nearly all metrics opponents probably far outnumber proponents, that didn't weigh into my feelings about this matter (see this paper that analyzed hundreds of comments on a Washington Post article using a technique known as Sentiment Analysis). I'm not a big fan of ad populum arguments in general. The masses are often wrong. Nonetheless, probably every article that I have seen that allows reader comments features a majority of negative viewpoints towards the proposal, and that holds for social media posts. Presumably, many or most of the posters that express negativity are part of the demographics that the AOS would like to lure into birding.

To most non-birders, the proposed renaming of honorifically named species is probably a mild absurdity - something straight out of the ONION. To those of us within the circle, it is more serious due to understanding the mass destabilization of ornithological nomenclature that will result. An oft-used argument by proponents is "names change all of the time". In other words, we should be used to shifting nomenclature. But that's not true, at least regarding English (common) names. Since the inaugural AOS (formerly American Ornithological Union) checklist came out in 1886, less than one English name has changed annually on average (see my commentary on warbler names in the column). In contrast, there has been a blizzard of changes with scientific names, but these go largely unnoticed by birders, very few of whom learn those names. English names are far more important in daily communication. With that said, no one that I know of who is against this proposal is against changing names that are demonstrably harmful. A great example of a legitimate change dates back to 2000, when the Oldsquaw was renamed Long-tailed Duck (from Wikipedia: "In 2000, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) formally adopted the name long-tailed duck, in response to petitioning by a group of biologists who feared that the former name would be offensive to Native American tribes whose help was required for conservation efforts."). We think that any proposed changes should be submitted on a case-by-case basis, as has been the model. Not an arbitrary and capricious mass removal of all eponyms.

While a stated purpose of the mass rebranding is to make birding more appealing to newcomers and less exclusionary to minorities, ironically, I think it will make learning more difficult and thus more exclusionary to new would-be birders. It'll take field guides, scores of online resources, and other learning tools some time to become up to date with the myriad name changes, resulting in confusion on many levels, especially to beginners. Furthermore, there is no as-yet published timetable by the AOS as to when this will all be accomplished. Rumblings are that they will roll out the changes gradually, perhaps taking a decade to implement all of them. And I do not believe they have as yet even decided with certainty what species' names are on the chopping block. It seems to me that before rolling out such a sweeping change, the AOS would have all of their ducks in a row and simultaneously unveil all facets of how this will be done, and which species will be changed. Instead, for whatever reason, they put the cart before the horse.

If you disagree with the AOS's decision, feel free to sign the petitionRIGHT HERE. It currently has over 5,600 signatures (the petition by Bird Names for Birds to the AOS that sparked this had about 180 signatures). The petition site also has a number of interesting statements by leading birders and ornithologists arguing against the change. 

Jim McCormac

The little-known U.S.-based American Ornithological Society (AOS) managed to make news on Nov. 1, 2023. That day, the 2,800-member academic organization announced that it would be changing all honorific names of birds in the Americas. That includes North, Central and South America, and associated islands. In all, the plan involves about 150 species. The AOS (formerly American Ornithological Union) is the long-standing authority for American bird names. A precise timetable for the changes has yet to be established.

In the U.S. and Canada, about 80 species are slated for rebranding, and 35 of them occur — or have occurred — in Ohio. Buckeye State birds include well-known species such as Bonaparte’s gull, Cooper’s hawk, Wilson’s snipe, and — in a double whammy to Wilson — Wilson’s warbler. In all, 35 honorifically named species on the Ohio list, or about 8% of the state list of 445 species, will be renamed.

Why the change? In the words of the AOS: “The AOS commits to changing all English-language names of birds within its geographic jurisdiction that are named directly after people (eponyms), along with other names deemed offensive and exclusionary…”

A group known as Bird Names for Birds was the impetus for the AOS nomenclatural shift, and they state: “Eponyms… and honorific common bird names are problematic because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it. The names that these birds currently have — for example, Bachman’s sparrow — represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts and do not uphold the morals and standards the bird community should memorialize.”

There are two major prongs to this movement: 1) Honorees are racist or otherwise bad people, therefore their names are exclusionary, and 2) bird names should be descriptive of the bird.

A major problem with No. 1 is that most people associated with eponymous bird names were not racist, or at least the AOS has not presented many cases for it. The idea seems to be to cast them all out — a wholesale purge of eponyms, ensuring the bad are deleted, even if the good are collateral damage. This decision was rendered by a committee of 19 people. That would be the AOS council, who did not poll birders at large, people in other countries that would be impacted, or even their own membership. In other words, the council was exclusionary.

This clumsy effort to rewrite history is fraught with problems. The aforementioned Alexander Wilson — namesake to the snipe, warbler and three other species — was a passionate ornithologist who lived for birds. He essentially worked himself to death by the age of 47 but not before becoming known as the Father of American Ornithology.

The reverend John Bachman — mentioned above — illustrates the problems of judging people by the standards of two centuries later. While Bachman owned slaves, which should never have been acceptable even in his day but unfortunately was, paradoxically he also was a leader in creating opportunities for Black people. Bachman invited people of color to join his congregation, which many did, and helped Blacks achieve positions that were unattainable at that time. One of his tutees was Daniel Payne, who went on to become a founder of Wilberforce University in Ohio and became one of its first presidents — the first Black college president in the United States.

The idea that honorific bird names are exclusionary is nonsensical. A leading advocate for changing eponymous bird names is field guide author Kenn Kaufman. Ironically, he wrote the following in a post supporting the eponym purge on his eponymously named Kaufman Field Guide blog: “Do eponymous names naturally lead to curiosity about the persons so recognized? I don’t think so. If we were to poll the ornithologists and serious birders of North America, I suspect that not one in a thousand would know who Botteri was (of Botteri’s Sparrow) or who Williamson was (of Williamson’s Sapsucker)… All these names have been there in the field guides and other books for many years, but hardly anyone has been inspired to say, ‘Gee, who was Heermann? Who was Hutton?’”

If no one knows who these people are, how can their names be exclusionary?

The other argument in favor of changing honorific names centers on the opportunity to provide more descriptive names. That opens a robust can of worms. Many non-eponymous names are hardly descriptive. Who knows what mallard means? Or sees the hairs on a hairy woodpecker. Few have seen the “red belly” on a red-bellied woodpecker. Carolina chickadee? They’re common in Ohio. Purple finches are hardly purple. All sparrows sing, not just the song sparrow. Do all these and scores of other non-descriptive names also have to be changed? And re-namers best be cautious. An oft-proposed alternate name for Kirtland’s warbler (named for Ohio naturalist Jared Kirtland) is jack pine warbler. Jack pine’s scientific name is Pinus banksiana. The specific epithet honors English naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. Dig deep enough into his history, and flaws will be found. As I’m sure historians in 2224 will find character defects in many of us.

One huge asset that ornithology has that very few other disciplines in the natural sciences have is a stable system of English names. English bird names are the currency of the masses (in English-speaking places). They allow all of us to speak on the same page, and greatly facilitate learning by newcomers. Furthermore, English names tend to be far more stable than scientific names (which very few birders know). Of the 38 species of breeding warblers in eastern North America (five are eponymously named), 33 still have the same English name as first published in the AOS’s inaugural checklist of North American birds in 1886 (including all five eponyms). Contrarily, 138 years later 31 of those 38 warblers have different scientific names. A large-scale change in English names will result in years of confusion, outdated field guides, and numerous other long-lasting hassles.

Resistance to the proposed AOS name changes has been widespread and opponents probably greatly outnumber proponents. To me and many others, the logic behind purging eponyms is largely baseless — at least its advocates have failed to make much of a case. The logic behind arguments for retaining existing names makes far more sense and maintains long-established stability.

Honorific names permeate science, and elsewhere. Legions of buildings, cities and towns, endowments and scholarships, streets, and much more are named honorifically. If truly bad names exist within these groups, change them as needed. But a blanket purge of honorific bird names by a tiny group of people in one area of the globe — whose changes are unlikely to be widely accepted — smacks of pretentious virtue signaling by out of touch elitists.

To learn more about rationales for changing bird names, visit the AOS website: English Bird Names Project - American Ornithological Society ( For dissenting opinions, including some from leading ornithologists, visit the petition to AOS leadership.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature


Vireo said...

Strongly support your point of view, Jim. Vireo

Mark Sundstrom said...

I'm in complete agreement and glad to see you write about this. I think this is just a terribly misguided idea. You've included some great examples, which actually want to make me learn more about who they were - Cooper, Wilson, Bachman, Botteri, Williamson, etc., to say nothing of Audubon - I have a couple books about him that I've yet to start reading. And I must say I'm disappointed to see Kenn Kaufman in support of this renaming as I've appreciated his field guides and books. If one is to carry this renaming to extremes, shouldn't we also change the name of the Northern Cardinal which, after all, refers to something related to the Roman Catholic Church, which, one might ask, why. Why not leave the names as they are and understand how they came to be. I did sign the petition. Thank you.

Woody Meristem said...

If the American Ornithological Society really wants to start eliminating honorific names perhaps it should start with its own. After all the descriptive "American" is said to honor Amerigo Vespucci, the navigator and explorer who visited the "new world" in the late 1400s. His explorations probably led to the demise of millions of the original inhabitants of the "new world": human, mammals, birds and plants.