More on woke birding: changing the names of all birds named after people will at least create an inclusive birding community—and help conserve birds

April 27, 2021 • 11:15 am

In two previous posts (here and here), I described the movement to “cancel” the names of those birds  named after people who held views we find reprehensible today. Names given after people are called “eponymous” names.  Two of the eponyms that are being removed are any bird named after Audubon himself (he decapitated Mexican battlefield corpses for scientific study, though that was common practice at the time), and McKown’s Longspur, named after a Confederate general. No matter that McKown’s longspur was named for his contributions to ornithology, and named before the Civil War, not in honor of his fighting for the Confederacy, nor that McKown repudiated the Confederate cause later in life. No, his fighting for the wrong side was enough to get his name removed (the bird is now known as the “thickbilled longspur”).

Now there’s a move afoot to rename every eponymous bird, as recounted in the article below (click on screenshot), which appears on the Cornell University bird site, All About Birds.  (The bird shown, Bachman’s sparrow, is likely to be renamed because Bachman said some white supremacst things.) The renaming is because bird names are considered white and colonialist, and said to cause “harm.”

Note that renaming all these birds is going to be a big job, for the names they bear now are well ensconced in the literature, and there’s no way to go back and change them. It’s not like removing a monument or renaming a building. There are more than 100 eponymous bird species in North America alone.

Why are they trying to change all eponymous bird names? To me it seems like the paradigmatic case of performative wokeness. Although the avowed aims are to make birding more inclusive, not only getting people of color (I assume) to become birders, but to get more people interested in birds as a way to conserve them. Both aims are admirable; my beef is that renaming birds will do virtually nothing to accomplish those goals.  Here’s what the article said, mentioning a virtual panel discussion by The Community Congress on English Bird names.

The unanimous sentiment among the 15-person panel—which featured birders, scientists, field guide authors, and other experts from the U.S. and Canada—was that changes need to be made among more than 100 eponymous bird names for North American species to make birding more welcoming and inclusive to all.

. . .“Eponymous names don’t reflect the welcoming and inclusive community we know birding can be,” Rutter said [Jordan Rutter, a founder of the group Bird Names for Birds]. She said that she believes the current system for determining common bird names reflects colonialism in ornithological history. Nearly every North American bird name tied to a person can be traced back to a white American or European naturalist.

“Every eponymous common name needs to go,” Rutter said. “We know that won’t happen quickly. And to be done right, it shouldn’t happen quickly … but it needs to happen.”

Note that every eponymous name needs to go. Not just names of Confederal generals or white supremacists, but every name. Why? Because most of those names “can be traced back to a white American or European naturalist”.  But most naturalists then were white. What’s the damage, then? It’s apparently that there is palpable harm caused to people by having to use or read those names. Referring to McKown’s Longspur, the article notes:

The change [to Thick-billed Longspur] was made after birders campaigned to remove McCown’s name from the bird, and after the classification committee revised its guidelines for bird names—adding considerations for “present-day ethical principles” when considering changing English common bird names that create “ongoing harm.”

And this is done to “improve the big landscape of racial and social injustice.”

Ongoing harm? Who claimed they were harmed beyond the idea of the woke birders that McCown’s name might create harm? Were there any Potential Birders of Color who said, “You know, I could get a lot more interested in birds, and engage in strenuous conservation efforts, if only I didn’t have to deal with that bloody name “McCown’s Longspur.”

This is both rhetorical and emotional inflation: a way for woke birders to feel that they’re accomplishing something when I have a strong feeling that they’re just doing something for show. If they want more birders of color, they should go to schools and excite the kids, they should help organize racially mixed birding groups, and (reflecting recent events), they should make clear that a black person with field glasses is more likely to be a birder than a murderer.

There is no evidence that I know of—and the articles present none—that eponymous bird names have created harm and social injustice. The very idea of that is almost laughable. But this is what scientists do when they want to show that they’re on the right side of history and don’t know how to really promote social change.

55 thoughts on “More on woke birding: changing the names of all birds named after people will at least create an inclusive birding community—and help conserve birds

  1. If they want to go down that road of stupidity, why don’t we change the bald eagle’s name because it “hurts” people with alopecia or the cardinal because it’s named after a European religious official that perpetuated fucked-up Catholic things which a fucked up Catholic official would normally do.

    1. That’s brilliant! Discussing the offensiveness of the term “bald eagle” sounds like the beginning of a Monty Python sketch. I can see them all now in a room discussing what to name birds. Love it.

        1. Let us not forget the penduline tits! Or the Ground tit, Siberian tit, Japanese tit, sombre tit, Père David’s tit (aka the moob), and of course everyone loves a Great tit!

          Or we could admit that common names are dumb and just stick to binomials, but I’ll bet they, too, are racist and prevent people from bird watching somehow.

    2. And Rose was not a nice lady, even though she did have a nice bosom. They should rename that grosbeak.

    3. To be pedantic, it’s not the people with alopecia that should be hurt – it’s the white-headed seniors. According to Dr. Wikipedia, “Bald eagles are not actually bald; the name derives from an older meaning of the word, “white headed”. (See also the word ‘piebald’.)

    4. As a hairline challenged American (sadly I’m white and cissygendered heteronormative …thus a potential rapist and slaveowner….but I’m working on it..) I’m offended by the violence of your comment. Actually I’m HURT by the violence of your observation!!!

      ps Is there just NO END to this f’ing performative woke madness? Birds? REALLY?

  2. Somewhat related to this entry….and given Dr. Coyne’s recent Texas trip…thought I would add this:

    “The one thing I want us to all be aware of is that modern science obviously recognizes that there are many more than two biological sexes.”- TX state Democratic representative James Talarico of Round Rock, a suburb of Austin. He also attended Harvard.

    1. The worst animal bite I ever got in my life was from a turkey, worse even than being bit in the face by a Dalmatian.


    1. Why not question the binomial nomenclature itself? It was made by white scientists, and it must surely imply some form of coercion (on nature, on men, on whatever you like). And what about using Latin? Wasn’t Latin the language of Romans, those violent white colonizers?

  3. I’m with Ant.

    I looked at the Axelson article and I can’t tell whether the proposal in that article is to change only the common names (might be reasonable) or to also change the scientific binomials. The ICZN doesn’t have a provision for name changes to accommodate “present-day ethical principles”. The ethics code at ICZN includes a provision for not proposing new names that would cause offence (also reasonable), but stability of the naming system precludes going back and changing old names because someone has recently been offended.

    So one could change the common name of Bachman’s sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis) to Pine-woods sparrow and all would be well. But one could change the common name of Bachman’s warbler to something else, and it would still be Vermivora bachmanii.

    1. I think that would be acceptable, because it is degrading Bachman’s reputation by the disparaging phrase in Latin, “Bachman eats worms”

      1. Except that the genus name is always a noun and the specific epithet an adjective. So (unfortunately) it’s worm-eater of Bachman’s.

  4. I have thought long & hard, and have come up with a brilliant plan to make certain that no formerly-eponymous-named bird gets a new designation that will turn out to offend or cause harm even worse than the original (hey, it could happen, amirite?).
    The new designation should be a symbol, in the same vein as the symbol that the artist formerly known as Prince used when he was engaged in the dispute with the record company.
    Of course, no symbol should be recognizable for any real thing, although I might make an exception for symbols that resemble corporate logos–sort of like selling naming rights. Nobody could be offended or harmed by that.

  5. In the interest of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we must obviously begin the renaming of virtually all the bacteria. Many, many bacteria are named after individual scientists, such as Theodor Escherich. [See: .] There are no African names at all that I could see, and there are a few Indian, Japanese, and Chinese names. But the vast majority of bacterial genera are named after scientists of European descent, demonstrating the systemic racism of the bacterial world. The campaign for microbial D, E, and I has a long way to go.

  6. There is a North American hummingbird species named for a young woman, Anna’s Hummingbird. Story is – at least as I heard it years ago – that the ornithologist who named it had a thing for this gal, and thought naming a bird for her might win her heart. It didn’t work.

  7. This is an issue only for ornithology, because (afaik) among animals only birds are given Official Common Names in addition to the Latin binomial.
    (And now it occurs to me to ask if all of these Official Common Names are in English. Kind of colonialistic if so, no?)

    1. Interesting. I think there are reasonable accommodations that can be made, for example, I don’t refer to ‘squaw fish’, I say ‘northern pike minnow’. But, northern pike minnow is the official and correct term, and the offensive former a slang term.

      1. The good thing about unofficial common names (as in ichthyology) is the ease with which they can be switched to avoid such offense.
        But in ornithology, every single species also gets an Official common name. There must be hundreds or thousands of fish species with no common name at all.

  8. Seems reasonable to have a discussion over whether (present and) future bird species should be named after people at all. I see nothing wrong with a societal decision not to do that. Annoying? Yes. Unnecessary? Yes. But I find a lot of other people’s preferences annoying and unnecessary, that doesn’t mean I argue against their right to have them. If ornithologists decide collectively they don’t want birds named after people, so be it.

    In terms of renaming old species, it’s insanity to go back and correct current references. Just rule that new publications use the new name and let time take care of the issue. If the woke really insist that current editions of documents must be changed, then I’d suggest a “pony up” solution. I.e. the society develop a rough order of magnitude cost to do that, start a fund, ask for donations from all these people who say they care so strongly about it, and pay for sticker-corrections or other corrections as funds allow. Methinks many of the loudest voices demanding change may not be so loud with their own pocketbooks.

  9. Yep, all those early ornithologists were white. Changing names will distance us from that fact, which seems to be the real motivation.

  10. If only renaming things was all you needed to do to make your community welcoming. If the birding community of the USA is not welcoming to minorities, it’s the birders that are a problem, not the names of the birds.

    1. Yes I agree. I doubt that changing the names of these birds will have any impact on the number of people from minority communities who choose to go birding. Some genuine outreach into those communities to try and get the kids interested and excited by birds and to make all members of the community feel they will be welcome would surely have a lot more effect. Unfortunately I guess that a constructive approach like that doesn’t feel as heroic as tilting at the windmills of names whose origins most people have little interest in and ‘smashing down the barriers to inclusion’.

      1. Well, no, what you suggest is actual hard work.

        I’m sure that a lot of these woke absurdities occur because they are easy whereas diagnosing the real problems and effecting real remedies is hard.

  11. I guess if you repeat a claim enough times, people will start to believe it, no matter how stupid. I’ll bet there’s going to be a whole generation of kids raised to think they can’t be birders because they are black and a name will cause them harm. I’m already seeing kids who think they can only be inspired to do something like science if a professional person looks like them.

  12. There’s a movement to change street names in my native city (Toronto), which the City Council has taken note of, shuffled to a committee and will allow to fade away. The joker is, not one out of a thousand Torontonians knew who the infamous Jarvis, Dundas or Ryerson was (Colonialists, of course). Renaming the streets, or in one case, a university, would cause millions of incidents of confusion in the everyday life of thousands of ordinary people, over years of time and cost several million dollars. It’s the last consideration that will probably kill the proposal. Thank god for cheapskates – sometimes they have the right idea.

  13. Negros Tree Babbler, African Pygmy Goose and Emperor Penguins are certainly offensive. And don’t get me started on the boobies or the tits.

  14. I agree with renaming in one instance: the Northern Cardinal — as it’s unfairly associated with the robes worn in a cult.

    1. Dave, what about the Prothonotary Warbler? They got their name because of their stunning yellow plumage that is near the shade of the robes worn by prothonotaries (scribes) in the Vatican. More cultists!

  15. “There is no evidence that I know of—and the articles present none—that eponymous bird names have created harm and social injustice. The very idea of that is almost laughable.” – Indeed, only a very small number of people have educated themselves sufficiently about the individuals behind the eponymous names to recognise the “harm” they represent.

    They can change the names, but they’ll still be written in the white supremacist Roman alphabet…

  16. Wasn’t it Richard Feynman who said that knowing the name of something isn’t the same as knowing something? This group has set out to prove his point.

  17. Note that every eponymous name needs to go. Not just names of Confederal generals or white supremacists, but every name. Why? Because most of those names “can be traced back to a white American or European naturalist”. But most naturalists then were white. What’s the damage, then? It’s apparently that there is palpable harm caused to people by having to use or read those names.

    What next? Rename Darwin’s theory of evolution because it can be traced back to a white European naturalist? Newton’s law of gravity has to go because Newton was white and a colonialist?

  18. The Community Congress panel has unaccountably overlooked still another way to make birding more Diverse and Inclusive. Some birds’ names may not be sufficiently welcoming to minorities, but could it not be that some birds themselves are not so welcoming? To paraphrase an insight by Kathleen McCartney, the distinguished Smith college president, “it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias” amongst the birds themselves. To address this problem, therefore, we expect a proposal to begin anti-racist training sessions for birds. There is no doubt that Diversity Consultant businesses can be found that will offer this special service.

  19. When I was a young man I always hoped I’d never be a “get offa my lawn” old guy.
    Now I am, but my defense is the ground has moved underneath me. A lot of “enlightenment liberal leftists” – people who think MLK Jr was on the right track, say, – feel the same I think (ahem!).

    THIS must be what it feels like to be a non-Jesus-fueled reasonable conservative who felt the same about 20 years ago when the GoP went insane, or 5 years ago when it turned into an orange grifter’s personal personality cult. The ground shifts and we can’t stop it.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I have to get some woke kids off my lawn, they’re renaming my birds!


  20. Many of us (ornithologists) who sat in on that meeting are of the opinion that eponymous bird names are arbitrary at best, and should be substituted with something more descriptive and helpful. Personally, this was a view I held well before the era of wokeness. Eponymous names serve no useful function. They don’t mean anything specific to the bird, aid in its identification, or tell us anything about its traits or its natural history.

    I’d prefer to see eponymous names for birds and other organisms go in lieu of something more descriptive (and welcoming, in terms of making sense and aiding in informing us about the bird’s characteristics) to the uninitiated and incipient birders of all backgrounds.

    1. That’s fine, but I think you have to admit that this movement would never have gotten started if people just thought that eponyoous bird names were “not descriptive.” Nope, what happened is, pure and simple, a result of wokeness among some birders, even if people like you didn’t like eponymous names for other reasons.

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