The American Ornithological Society has issued a Diktat that all common bird names derived from a person’s name, or “eponyms,” are going to be discarded and replaced with descriptive names. The Latin binomials or “scientific names”, however, are not going to be changed. Below is the order from on high; click on headline below to read:
- 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, focusing first on those species that occur primarily within the U.S. or Canada.
- The AOS commits to establishing a new committee to oversee the assignment of all English common names for species within the AOS’s jurisdiction; this committee will broaden participation by including a diverse representation of individuals with expertise in the social sciences, communications, ornithology, and taxonomy.
- The AOS commits to actively involving the public in the process of selecting new English bird names.
The AOS argues for these obligatory common-name changes for two reasons. First, a bird named after a person doesn’t describe the bird (“Gambel’s quail“, for instance, might be more descriptively called the “brown-capped quail”, which tells you a bit about its appearance). Second, the real reason can be seen in a fuller statement here:
Until recently, changes to English common names were mainly considered when necessitated by scientific evidence, such as newly described or revised species. In its decision-making, the committee has upheld the principle of stability as the primary criterion to ensure that bird species’ names are meaningful and understood by their users.
Recently the committee revised its Guidelines for English Bird Names (AOS NACC 2020) to allow changes to English bird names that were derogatory or offensive. These guidelines were expanded in response to a proposal (Chesser and Driver 2020) to change the English name of what is now known as the Thick-billed Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii), which had formerly been named after an individual with strong ties to the Confederacy and who is perceived today by many as a symbol of slavery and racism. The English name of this species was changed unanimously by the NACC to reflect the bird’s physical description and remove its association with a harmful historical figure (Chesser et al. 2021).
In 2020, reflecting the heightened awareness of systemic racism and the need to address these injustices across society, there was a public petition to the AOS to change all English bird names that were named directly after people (i.e. eponymous names) because several of the honored individuals are identified as symbols of racism and colonialism. The AOS initially approached this difficult issue through efforts led by members of the AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee. This group engaged with various interest groups through listening sessions and hosting a Community Congress to bring together perspectives from across the ornithological community. There was broad recognition that all English bird names should be evaluated to determine if they align with principles of inclusion and social justice. However, the challenge has been in establishing criteria to determine which names are exclusionary, harmful, or offensive, or recognize historical figures who do not merit honoring and, therefore, should be changed (Winker 2022).
In 2022, the AOS ad hoc English Bird Names Committee was tasked with the considerable challenge of recommending the criteria for determining which bird names should be changed and how best to implement the process of changing them. After more than a year’s work and careful deliberation, the committee has produced a detailed report recommending that the best course of action would be to change all English names within the AOS’s jurisdiction that were named after people.
That saves a lot of work, doesn’t it? You don’t have to pore through all eponyms and make a subjective judgement about which individuals were bad. You just change all names to obviate the problem.
In other words, the main reason is that some birds were named after people who we would now judge as immoral. John James Audubon, for example, had slaves, and that’s enough to deep-six the name “Audubon’s warbler,” which will presumably become the “yellow-rumped warbler.” But why change all names? I don’t buy the “more descriptive” reason. As related above, that’s not how the change happened. If there wasn’t a movement to change names of birds named after bad people, there would be no movement to eliminate eponyms in toto. My guess is simply laziness on top of virtue signaling: if you change all eponyms, you eliminate the peril of having to judge a bird named after a person who could later have been found to do bad stuff, or, if morality changes, what we now consider innocuous will someday be bad. It saves the trouble of arguing which “honoree” was good or bad.
What do I think about the new plan? I’ve written about bird names several times before, and you can see my views at these links. In brief, I’m adamantly opposed to changing the scientific names of birds—their Latin binomials (e.g., no change for Peucaea aestivalis, the scientific name of Bachman’s sparrow, although the common name is already on the execution list because John Bachman was a white supremacist). Changing scientific names would throw the literature into deep confusion. And, in fact, the International Committee for Zoological Nomenclature has refused to change scientific names except in very specific circumstances, like if they discover the species was described earlier under a different name.
What about common names, the subject of this post? I don’t feel nearly so strongly about that, and thus about this new proposal, but I did weigh the upsides and downsides of changing common names.
- Describes the bird better
- Avoids honoring bad people and supposedly creating “harm”. This will make birding more “inclusive”.
- Erases history; even bad people should be remembered, though not honored. We don’t censor history books to eliminate bad people, so why bird names?
- Impedes communication; the Northern Cardinal might be changed to the “pointy-headed red bird”, which is more descriptive, but people wouldn’t know what it was.
- In countries that don’t have English as the common language, the names will be already be different, and they will not change when the eponyms are changed in the U.S.
- The act is performative and accomplishes nothing towards alleviating social injustice. Presumably the idea is that, for example, having birds named after slaveholders is said to be harmful to African-Americans, and eliminating such names would bring into ornithology minorities who were offended by birds named after bigots.
- The acceptance of this mass action will justify future performative acts in science (my definition of “wokeness” is, at times, “the creation of purely performative actions or statements in the cause of social justice”).
But I have never heard of a single person who has been harmed by a bird named after a racist, and I doubt that renaming ALL birds with eponyms would increase the diversity of birders. Changing such names makes you feel virtuous and look virtuous to others, but is purely for show. As I said in this morning’s New York Times in an article about the changes (see below; you can find the article archived here):
Mr. Cooper mentioned the Wilson’s warbler, a canary songbird with a characteristic black cap. Changing the name to something “like black-capped warbler,” he said, would give birders a better idea of what to look for.
But to Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago who is an avid birder, the need for more descriptive names did not seem pressing. Performative acts like this “are really deeply injurious to science,” he said. “We cannot go back through the history of science and wipe out everybody who was not a perfect human being.” Dr. Coyne added that the effort to update so many names would be better invested in something more impactful to society, such as teaching underprivileged children about birds.
One correction: I’m not really an “avid birder”, and told Ms. Miller that while I love birds and look for interesting ones in new places, I don’t keep a life list or travel to see more birds as true birders do. But I also said that I do love ducks, so I suppose I am an avid “ducker”. Miller told me she got her Ph.D. at Chicago and was well familiar with Botany Pond and its ducks!
At any rate, the downsides seem to outweigh the upsides, and the biggest issue for me is that this act is not only performative and ineffectual, but will make it easier in the future to do other performative stuff, something that is hurting science. (Look at how, for purely ideological reasons, people are starting to deny that there are just two sexes in humans AND in other animals!)
Click to read the NYT report or go to the archived link to see more.
A few quotes from the article against and in favor of the new Diktat:
“We’re really doing this to address some historic wrongs,” said Judith Scarl, the executive director of the American Ornithological Society. Dr. Scarl added that the change would help “engage even more people in enjoying and protecting and studying birds.”
I don’t believe that at all!
Carlos Daniel Cadena, an ornithologist at the University of the Andes in Colombia and a leader of the English Bird Names Committee, expects the changes to entail a slight learning curve but also present a new opportunity for the public to bond over birds.
“It’s going to be a level playing field where we all need to learn together,” Dr. Cadena said.
Will this really make people throughout the world bond over birds? I doubt it, because bird names are given NOT in English in non-Anglophone countries like Colombia.
CON: Me, I suppose, and these folks:
“The idea of changing a bunch of names is, to many people — myself included, originally — throwing out a lot of history,” said John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell University. He said that he initially felt bird names should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis but that further discussions convinced him that “there is no formula by which we can figure out which names are good enough.”
That’s a good point. Why change every bird named after a person? The ISZN already recommends not giving animals offensive Latin names, though it doesn’t enforce it as far as I know.
But some birders, while expressing sympathy for the cause, said that they were unsure that this was the right route to take. “I’m not super enthusiastic about it, but neither am I super disappointed about it,” said Jeff Marks, an ornithologist at the Montana Bird Advocacy.
“We’ll lose a little bit of knowledge about some key people in the history of ornithology, and that saddens me,” Dr. Marks said. “But maybe in the scheme of things that’s just not that big of a deal.”
Yes, it’s not that big a deal—except that it promotes the use of performative acts in science.
So it goes. I’m just thankful that mallards are not named after a person!