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Q: How did the AOS come to the decision to change all eponymous bird names within its purview?

A: Although the practice of giving birds standardized common names, including naming birds after people, has been somewhat controversial for over a century, in recent years this controversy has grown with calls for social justice and the goal of making ornithology and birding as broadly inclusive as possible. In 2020, the group Bird Names for Birds submitted a petition to the AOS asking that all eponymous names of species within the AOS’s purview be changed. To better understand viewpoints across the spectrum of people that work with or enjoy birds, the AOS Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Committee held several listening sessions with stakeholder groups that included ornithologists, birders, educators, agency workers, and field guide authors, many but not all of whom were also AOS members. In addition, in 2021 the D&I Committee held a public “Community Congress” (video here) with a panel of speakers from eBird, the U.S. Geological Survey North American Breeding Bird Survey and Bird Banding Lab programs, Bird Names for Birds, National Audubon Society, Birds Canada, and other stakeholder groups. From these listening sessions and the Community Congress, the AOS D&I Committee concluded that there was broad agreement that common bird names could be changed for social justice reasons, and that many of the hurdles to doing so are surmountable. 
In light of this, the AOS formed an ad hoc English Bird Names Committee in 2022 with representatives from several stakeholder groups, including taxonomists, ornithologists from agencies and academia, field guide authors, birding groups, and others. This committee was charged to develop a process that would allow the AOS to identify and change harmful and exclusionary English bird names in a thoughtful and proactive way for species within AOS’s purview (i.e., considering the species that have historically occurred in the areas covered by the checklists managed by the North American Classification Committee [NACC] and South American Classification Committee [SACC]). After several months of work, that ad hoc committee made several recommendations for changing eponymous English common bird names. Chief among these was the recommendation that all eponyms should be changed, not just some. Based on their evaluations and expertise, the committee advised that addressing names on a case-by-case basis was an intractable process that would take focus away from the birds themselves and inevitably lead to divisive debates about which people did or did not deserve to have birds named after them. The AOS Council discussed these recommendations at considerable length during its meeting in the summer of 2023, and in the end voted unanimously (with one abstention) to adopt the committee’s recommendations, including the recommendation to change all eponymous English common bird names within the purview of the AOS.

Q: What has the general response been to the announcement that the AOS is changing eponymous bird names?

A: The AOS announcement in November 2023 to change eponymous English bird names received tremendous media attention and sparked passionate responses from ornithologists, bird enthusiasts, and the general public. Given the popularity of birds and their importance in many nature-related issues, this announcement had wide-ranging implications for AOS members and the public. AOS leadership sent messages regarding the decision to members first and distributed a press release for a wider audience.  The announcement was featured as top news in several major and local newspapers as well as TV and radio programs across North America. In general, the national and international media coverage of this decision was mostly positive and more wide-reaching than expected. These articles featured positive support from many influential authors, activists, and scientists, including field guide authors David Sibley and Kenn Kauffman; influential birders Drew Lanham, Corina Newsome, and Christian Cooper; and author Amy Tan. Other scientific societies and bird organizations, like the Wilson Ornithological Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and American Birding Association, offered strong statements of support and a willingness to help with the process. 

While the announcement of the decision was received with enthusiasm and positivity on many fronts, the announcement’s reception also garnered some frustration, disagreement, and push-back from some AOS members, birders, and the news media. AOS leadership received a public petition, signed by 5,789 individuals at the time it was submitted, as well as a resolution signed by 231 AOS Fellows Honorary Fellows, asking the AOS to reconsider the decision to change all eponymous names. Those who disagreed with the decision cited concerns about instability in taxonomic lists due to the proposed scale of changes, difficulties in learning many new names and the confusion that would ensue, sadness over the loss of ornithological history, and concerns that changing all eponymous English names would provide minimal benefit for inclusivity or conservation but would incur a large cost. Many ornithologists argued that many honorees who have had birds named for them are outstanding individuals and should retain these honors. AOS leadership understands that there are many considerations for a decision of this magnitude, and we recognize that it will take time and effort to adjust to such significant changes.  We are listening to the comments and questions we have received, which are informing part of our pilot process and our evaluation of the pilot. The primary goal of this decision was to make ornithology more inclusive, and AOS leaders will continue to listen and communicate to bring people of different perspectives and opinions together as the new process begins.

Q: Is it the role of a scientific society to make changes based on social issues?

A: Scientific societies, like the AOS, support science and professionals that engage with that science. The AOS provides direct support for science through many of its programs, including research grants and fellowships, annual meetings, and top-ranked ornithological journals. The AOS also supports scientists by providing professional development opportunities and creating a welcoming and supportive community. Scientific societies play an important role in shaping the professional and social culture of a field. For example, two recent papers in the AOS journal Ornithological Applications (Inzunza et al. 2023, Soares et al. 2023) highlighted how scientific organizations and journals can better support ornithologists in Latin America, and the AOS’s Code of Conduct and Ethics lays out the society’s expectations for professional conduct in both scientific research and social interactions within the AOS community. Science does not happen in isolation from social, cultural, political, or financial factors, and the AOS often considers these factors when evaluating how to support scientists, their research, and their career development.

The AOS (and, previously, the American Ornithologists’ Union) has long provided guidance on acceptable common names of birds. Eponymous common names have both a scientific and a social component, often connoting the taxonomic group to which the species belongs while also honoring a prominent ornithologist, collector, or patron associated with the species. In 2020, the NACC updated its guidelines to consider the social impacts of common names of birds and to allow changing any considered derogatory, offensive, or harmful, including eponyms that honored historical figures who had engaged in reprehensible behavior. Moving away from eponyms and towards the use of suitable descriptive names will reframe the focus away from negative social impacts often associated with human behavior and towards positive aspects of the birds themselves.

Q: How will AOS members be able to engage in the new process for selecting new English common names of birds?

A: A major component of the new initiative is to engage a coalition of professional ornithologists and members of the broader public in the process of selecting suitable replacement common names. AOS leaders welcome feedback from members about how best to work together on the upcoming pilot project, which is meant to develop and test a new naming process. Suggestions are being sought especially related to composition of the committee designing and overseeing the pilot project, potential groups to engage as partners, including internationally, best practices to ensure cultural respect for everyone involved in the naming process, and other ways to improve the process. Once the pilot project is underway, there will be mechanisms in place for members to contribute suggestions for appropriate names, to compile information about each species that would help the public in suggesting suitable names, and to summarize historical information on past honorees. The renaming project is envisioned to be a community-driven program to help build greater awareness of birds and conservation challenges. AOS members, as experts in the field of ornithology, are encouraged to contribute their knowledge and expertise to ensure the suitability and long-term stability of the new names. Please share your comments, feedback, and desired involvement through this Google form

Q: How will the public and partners be able to engage in the new process for selecting new English common names of birds?

A: Undertaking this renaming project offers unique, and in fact unprecedented, opportunities to involve the entire ornithological community, birding groups, and the broader public in determining the new common names of the birds that have been selected for the upcoming pilot project. Indeed, the AOS recognizes that it is important to include the thoughts and opinions of a diverse array of ornithological experts and birding enthusiasts to ensure that the new names are stable and enjoy broad, long-standing support. This is particularly true for birds that reside for much of the year outside of North America. At the same time, this is an entirely new approach and so the mechanics need to be worked out – hence the need for a pilot project. The AOS will reach out to other ornithological societies and birding organizations as potential partners to discuss how they might best be involved, and to develop mechanisms for gathering input from the broader birding and ornithological communities in the regions where the species under current consideration reside. This input might include surveys or open forums for discussion, and may vary depending on the species. The information gathered in this way will be summarized for the Pilot English Common Names Committee, which will then use that information to make final decisions. Please share your comments, feedback, and desired involvement through this Google form.

Q: What does the AOS hope to accomplish with the pilot project?

A: The decision to change eponymous English bird names is unprecedented and there are many aspects that are still being worked out. The goal of the pilot project is to use a small group of species to develop and test a new, inclusive process for soliciting suggestions for suitable names from a broad array of people who are familiar with the birds. This requires careful thought and efforts to work out the specifics of how the committee overseeing the project will function and how best to engage with the public. All suggestions are welcome, and the goal is to develop practices that are considerate and inclusive of diverse perspectives. In particular, the pilot process will help determine the best way in which to do the following:

  • Assemble a diverse committee, representative of the different groups that use common bird names, who can evaluate suggestions, develop inclusive practices, and be open to suggestions
  • Document the history of species’ names and biographies of honorees for future generations
  • Create an innovative and equitable method to solicit suggestions from professional ornithologists and the public for suitable new common names for the pilot species
  • Develop the technical and logistical aspects of this process, including a platform for soliciting and hosting public input, and diverse communication channels to reach out to the public
  • Evaluate the impact of potential names on various aspects of science and culture as we choose creative, descriptive new names 
  • Engage scientists, conservationists, managers, and bird enthusiasts in this process
  • Assess the costs and positive impacts of this initiative across ornithology and in public perception
  • Develop ways to use the renaming initiative as an opportunity to engage the public in learning more about birds

Q: When will the pilot launch and how will it develop?

A: The pilot project is planned to launch during 2024, but the specific timeline has not yet been established.  Plans are still in progress on the structure and composition of the committee overseeing the pilot project, the working groups that will be involved in various aspects, and the mechanisms and platforms for engaging the public in suggesting new names. Likewise, work is in progress for anticipating challenges of the pilot project and for developing metrics to evaluate the success of the project.

Q: What was the rationale for changing all names and not using a case-by-case approach?

A: Most people recognize that some bird names can be offensive and exclusionary. Deciding which ones should be changed is more difficult because people have different principles, backgrounds, and perspectives. The case-by-case approach, where each species is reviewed individually to decide if it is problematic enough to warrant changing its name, was discussed earnestly by the Ad Hoc English Bird Names Committee and the AOS Council as an option for approaching English bird name changes. Evaluating honorees for whether they are deserving of the distinction would involve a painful process of evaluating each person’s life relative to a diversity of opinions of what is admirable or even just harmless. What may seem inoffensive or laudable to individuals in some cultures may be viewed as objectionable or hostile to those of other backgrounds. To respect these different narratives and to keep the focus on birds, the decision was made to change all eponymous names as a more tractable and equitable approach. 

There is also general agreement that the process of selecting suitable replacement names for eponyms will require thoughtful consideration of multiple viewpoints. Executing these changes will take time, effort, and money. Some have suggested that the case-by-case approach would not be as intensive or costly as changing all eponyms. The case-by-case approach, however, would add an extra layer to the process of renaming, in which the committee would have to review petitions and determine the moral standards by which to consider harmfulness, all of which could lead to contentious value judgments and lengthy debates. In addition, a case-by-case approach places the burden of petitioning for name changes on the people most affected by harmful names, which can cause pain and goes against the mission and values of the AOS. In the end, it was decided that evaluating whether all eponymous names are harmful or not on a case-by-case basis would likely entail a more intensive effort than changing all names.

Q: Will eponymous scientific names also be changed?

A: Scientific names will not be changed as a part of the AOS English bird names initiative. Scientific names are regularly reviewed and updated by the AOS’s North American and South American classification committees in response to new scientific research and following the naming rules of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

Q: How can I learn more about the upcoming initiative?

A: Read our latest blog post and subscribe to the English Bird Names blog. Stay tuned, this page and others on our website will be updated with additional information over time.