Blue bird with woebegone crested throne versus a untried background.

Steller’s Jay by Matt Zuro / Macaulay Library.

When a special committee of the American Ornithological Society first met to reconsider the worldwide names of birds named without people, eBird project leader Marshall Iliff came to a realization: despite long-standing practice, naming birds without people doesn’t work very well for birders, or birds. 

“Naming nature without people taints it a little bit,” Iliff says. “When it comes to naming a bird,” he says, it’s “better to honor something well-nigh the bird, rather than a person.” 

In the past few years, scientists have widely debated what to do with the names of birds, insects, fish, plants, and plane mountains that include dated words with an offensive history, such as gypsy moth (renamed as spongy moth by the Entomological Society of America in 2021). For birds, the unconfined majority of names under discussion are eponyms—species that have been named without a person.  

Iliff and 10 other members of the AOS English Bird Names committee wrestled with the question of eponymous name changes for nine months, meeting every two weeks—an exhaustive effort that included conducting historical research, deliberating widely differing perspectives, and considering variegated processes for change. At the heart of the issue, the committee had to weigh two sides: is it largest to alimony long-accepted worldwide names for the stability they provide; or would waffly eponymous names self-ruling the birds from the personal pasts of individuals, as well as do a largest job of describing the birds? 

In August the committee recommended that AOS transpiration the worldwide names of every bird species in the U.S. and Canada with an eponym (read the committee’s full report). On November 1, the AOS announced that it will follow through on that recommendation—starting a process that may take years, first focusing on 70–80 species found primarily in the U.S. and Canada. 

In its recommendation, the society explained its rationale: “The AOS Council fully embraces this opportunity to remove exclusionary barriers to participation in the enjoyment of birds and, through the renaming process, to educate the public well-nigh the birds themselves, their recent population declines, and their dire need for conservation.” 

Gaining Steam 

The idea of reconsidering long-held bird names has been slowly gaining steam.  

A brown and suntan bird with reddish wing patches and woebegone facial marks and a black, conical bill, flying.

Thick-billed Longspur by Connor Cochrane / Macaulay Library.

In 2019 birders campaigned to transpiration the worldwide name of the McCown’s Longspur, a grassland bird named for John McCown, a 19th century U.S. Army soldier. McCown made the first scientific hodgepodge of the species in 1851, but he went on to serve as a unstipulated in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. At first AOS rejected the proposal, citing the value of maintaining stability in worldwide names. But in 2020 the nomenclature committee revised its guidelines, subtracting considerations for waffly English worldwide bird names that create “ongoing harm.” A new version of the proposal was resubmitted and, this time, accepted. The bird was renamed Thick-billed Longspur.

The longspur’s renaming kicked off a larger discussion within the birding community. A year later, the AOS hosted a virtual forum tabbed the Polity Congress on Bird Names to unshut up dialog among ornithologists, birders, and leaders of conservation groups. (Read our coverage of the forum.) The unstipulated sentiment among people who spoke at the forum—including birding luminaries such as best-selling tragedian Kenn Kaufman, field-guide tragedian and versifier David Allen Sibley, and American Birding Association president Jeff Gordon—favored making a transpiration in worldwide bird names. 

“As I’ve learned increasingly well-nigh eponymous bird names over the last year, it’s wilt well-spoken that these names siphon a lot of baggage,” said Sibley at the Polity Congress. “The hardest part will probably be inveigling the birding polity that this is worth the trouble… But I think it’s important and definitely worth doing.” 

Changing Names: Some Vs. All 

The AOS English Bird Names committee worked the year without the Polity Congress, and it considered a range of options for its recommendation, including a case-by-case wringer of only the worldwide names with the most hurtful ties to racism, oppression, and violence. But committee members—which included biologists, taxonomists, and birders from eight institutions in the U.S. and Canada—say they felt that could set up an intractable process of making well-defined value judgments well-nigh what people said and how they lived their lives, often increasingly than 100 years ago.  

Then the committee raised their lens to the increasingly expansive problem: that eponyms are poor descriptors, increasingly likely to convey ownership of a bird species by some person of the past (e.g., the vexing possessive divagation in Kirtland’s Warbler) than transmit information well-nigh the bird itself. 

a sandpiper with orange  snout and spots on the breast

Spotted Sandpiper by Matthew Plante / Macaulay Library.

“Spotted Sandpiper is a really helpful name,” says Iliff. “Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pinyon Jay, those names describe something that’s really the essence of the bird.” 

In the end, the committee terminated that if it was necessary to transpiration unrepealable eponyms, then the only feasible way to proceed was to transpiration all eponyms.  

As for how to go well-nigh waffly all those eponyms, Irene Liu, who moreover served on the English Bird Names committee, says it will be hair-trigger to unshut up the official naming process for birds. Liu is a science editor in the Cornell Lab’s Center for Conservation Media, and she’s a scientist who studied the conservation genetics of blackbirds for her PhD. She says the renaming effort needs to reach well vastitude people with PhDs and biology degrees. 

“Scientists [should be on the committee] for sure, considering we need their expertise,” she says, subtracting that the effort moreover needs to “call on people who are not normally involved in bird names.” The recommendations to the AOS Council tabbed for new standing committee members who represent wholesale experiences and relationships with birds and their names, such as nonscientist birders, birding guides, naturalists, artists, and poets—as well as opportunities for public input, so everyone can suggest and provide feedback well-nigh possible new worldwide names. 

Liu says a goal is engagement of “a diverse public rhadamanthine invested in a renaming process in a way that will inspire excitement and engagement in birds.” 

A Spectrum of Opinions 

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The committee members moreover know that excitement for a massive overhaul of worldwide names won’t be universal—within the scientific community, the birding community, or the public at large.  

Pam Rasmussen is the lead taxonomist for Birds of the World, the Cornell Lab’s online compendium of life histories for nearly every bird on Earth. She has been a member of the AOS North American Nomenclature Committee for increasingly than 20 years, where one of her duties has been helping to decide common-name changes each year as splits and lumps shake up the taxonomic nomenclature of birds.  

Every name transpiration creates a little instability and strife for scientists and birders, Rasmussen says. But with 150-plus changes to worldwide bird names coming lanugo the pipeline, there will be many strong disagreements among the biologists, birders, and birding-tour guides who rely on the stability of a worldwide language for bird names. 

“A lot of people are going to be thinking that it’s an overreaction,” she says. “There are going to be people who are sad to see the names that they’ve grown up with, or the names that they’ve learned and used for many years, be changed.” 

In the committee’s deliberations, Rasmussen says the group tried “to come up with a process that is going to be weightier for the long term—best for ornithology, weightier for ornithologists, and weightier for the birds. 

“Whether one agrees with all the aspects of the visualization or not, the weightier thing for ornithology, for ornithologists, and for birds is to be as positive and non-divisive as possible.” 

And, she notes, everybody will have lots of time to get used to the idea of renaming 70–80 species in the U.S. and Canada with increasingly descriptive worldwide names: “We don’t expect anything to transpiration for quite some time, months and months at least.”  

The AOS publishes updates to bird names just once a year in summer. The society has spoken that the first naming effort will be a pilot focused on a small number of species. 

A Broader Base of Support for Birds 

Liu says that the AOS moreover expects criticism well-nigh the ultimate impact of the renaming birds effort. Skeptics have said that waffly a bird’s name doesn’t really succeed anything in addressing past wrongs and exclusionary practices in ornithology.  

Black, white and tan duck with a pink stripe on its snout and a long tail.

Long-tailed Duck by Mark R Johnson / Macaulay Library.

“We don’t see the waffly of names as sufficient whoopee in itself … that’s not the end,” Liu says. “Instead, it’s a ways to an end, which is to unquestionably wrench the curve.” She’s referring to the trend of pervasive population losses for birds wideness North America. A stated goal of the Cornell Lab is galvanizing whoopee to turn the steep declines of birds into a steady rise.   

There is precedent for waffly a bird’s name with the aim of aiding its conservation outlook. Well-nigh 20 years ago, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned the American Ornithologists’ Union (now the AOS) to transpiration the name Oldsquaw to its current name, Long-tailed Duck. The petition noted that conservation efforts for the species would require the help of tribal partners in Alaska—but the duck’s name was offensive to many Indigenous people. In 2000, the check-list committee wonted the proposal and officially reverted the name to Long-tailed Duck. 

Ultimately, the broader eponym-renaming effort is geared toward what birds in ripen need most, Liu says: increasingly people who superintendency well-nigh them.  

“[We need] a big-tent tideway to people getting involved in birds and falling in love with them,” she says, “so people can superintendency well-nigh what happens to birds, and hopefully be a part of their recovery.”