American Ornithological Society Will Change the English Names of Bird Species Named After People

Scientists Will Establish a New Multidisciplinary Naming Entity and Seek Public Input, Beginning with 70–80 Bird Species in the U.S. and Canada

“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today,” says president.

“The time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs,” says CEO. 


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:  media@americanornithology.org

CHICAGO (November 1, 2023)—Today the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced that in an effort to address past wrongs and engage far more people in the enjoyment, protection, and study of birds, it will change all English bird names currently named after people within its geographic jurisdiction. The AOS will also change the process by which English names are selected for bird species. The effort will begin in 2024 and will focus initially on 70–80 bird species that occur primarily within the U.S. and Canada.

Sayornis saya perched on a stalk. Text reads "There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today." from Colleen Handel, AOS President

“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today. We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves,” said AOS President Colleen Handel, Ph.D., a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska. “Everyone who loves and cares about birds should be able to enjoy and study them freely—and birds need our help now more than ever.”

Ornithologists have long grappled with historical and contemporary practices that contribute to the exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, including how birds are named. For example, in 2020, the AOS renamed a small prairie songbird found on the Great Plains to “Thick-billed Longspur.” The bird’s original name—honoring John P. McCown, an amateur naturalist who later became a general in the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War—was perceived as a painful link to slavery and racism.

Today, the AOS is taking decisive action to reframe the issue of birds named after people altogether. Specifically, the scientific society is announcing three changes to the way it and its predecessor organizations have operated since the 1880s:

  • 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.

“As scientists, we work to eliminate bias in science. But there has been historic bias in how birds are named, and who might have a bird named in their honor. Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today, and the time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs,” said Judith Scarl, Ph.D., AOS Executive Director and CEO. “I am proud to be part of this new vision and am excited to work in partnership with a broad array of experts and bird lovers in creating an inclusive naming structure.”

North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. Says Scarl, “To reverse these alarming bird population declines, we need as many people as possible to get excited about birds and unite to protect them.”

Since 1886, the AOS and its predecessor, the American Ornithologists’ Union, have maintained a list of official English-language names for birds in North America (and more recently, South America). These names are widely used by schools and universities, government agencies, conservation organizations, the news media, artists and writers, birders and photographers, and many other members of the English-speaking public worldwide. These English names are often updated as scientists discover new information about the ecology and evolution of these birds.

In addition to their official English names, birds, like all living things, have a two-part scientific name that scientists use to communicate among themselves across languages and nationalities. For example, Haliaeetus leucocephalus is the scientific name for the Bald Eagle. Scientific names will not be changed as a part of the AOS English bird names initiative, but they 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.

The AOS will conduct an open, inclusive, and scientifically rigorous pilot program in 2024 to develop its new approach to English bird names in the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, the AOS has come to see its authority over the English names of Latin American birds in a new light and has committed to engaging in a broader set of conversations with ornithologists and organizations in Latin America before proceeding with Latin American name changes. Interested parties are invited to follow this initiative’s progress at www.americanornithology.org and @AmOrnith on major social media platforms over the coming months and years.

About the American Ornithological Society

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) is an international society dedicated to connecting ornithologists, science, and bird conservation by supporting science that advances the understanding and conservation of birds; promoting broad access to ornithological science; supporting ornithologists throughout their career paths; and fostering a welcoming, diverse, supportive, and dynamic ornithological community. The AOS publishes two top-ranked international scientific journals, Ornithology and Ornithological Applications, and hosts an annual conference that attracts ornithologists from across the globe. Its robust grants program supports student and early-career professional research initiatives. The Society’s check-lists serve as the accepted authorities for scientific nomenclature and English common names of birds in the Americas. The AOS is also a partner with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the online Birds of the World, a rich database of species accounts of the world’s birds. The AOS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization serving about 3,000 members globally. For more information, see www.americanornithology.org.

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COMMENTS

  1. This is a momentous day in ornithology! As a long-time member, career ornithologist, and Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, i am proud of the moral clarity and leadership at the helm of the AOS and of everyone who has pushed this conversation forward. You have my unequivocal support in this process, AOS.

    1. What Tim said! I hope that you will balance an understandable bias toward cautious deliberation with a fervor for action that is grounded in what we know to be right. I look forward to using the new names ASAP!

    2. Agreed. It’s time to update the names of many birds. How about changing Barrow’s Goldeneye simply to Goldeneye.

      1. I feel that renaming the species with the common name, Barrow’s Goldeneye, to Goldeneye would not be as appropriate as being consistent with the scientific name, Bucephala islandica. A better new common name would be Icelandic Goldeneye, which would keep the two Goldeneye species (the other one is Common Goldeneye or Bucephala clangula) separate. Also, since the Barrow’s Goldeneye was first reported in Iceland, it would maintain some of the historical record. An additional benefit to using the new common name I’ve suggested is that it would be consistent with the French common name for Barrow’s Goldeneye, which is Garrot d’Islande.

  2. Thank you for this great decision that gives us such a great opportunity to work together to choose names that we are all proud to use and that celebrate the birds that bring us together.

    1. This is beyond ridiculous. No one thinks of who Anna is when they see an Anna’s hummingbird. The egregious names, there is little debate, but making wholesale change of names like Cooper’s hawk is an extreme answer to a problem only a fringe were concerned about. This wasn’t brave, this was merely capitulation.

      1. I don’t think this is ridiculous at all. I think it’s practical. Anna tells us nothing about the hummingbird. I like the idea of renaming birds to something useful for identification or behavior or habitat or whatever you’re going to use for the new names.

  3. It’s good to hear momentum along this line and I know some ornithologists east and west had already been advocating for this change. Well done! I also wanted to bring to your notice that there are certain English names which are misleading and they also need to be changed. For example, the name Himalayan Monal for Lophophorus impejanus is misleading. The word Monal is taken from Nepali Munal which actually refers to the bird what is known as Satyr Tragopan in English. We have been pressed to continue saying this name and completely disrespecting existing local knowledge and names. Danphe is the official Nepali name for what we call Himalayan Monal. I hope AOS can also propose along this line where past English names that claim to have been based in the local language –for some species–need to change. A very good step forward!

  4. I applaud the leadership of the AOS for this decision, which will contribute to a more inclusive community of birders and ornithologists as well as more appreciation of the birds themselves. Kudos to those who campaigned so effectively, particularly the dedicated people who started the Bird Names for Birds effort. I look forward to the new names!

  5. Changing a name is a radical step and it’s absolutely appropriate for racist terms (such as the former long-tailed duck) or eponyms honoring leaders of a war to establish a white supremacist state. I don’t think anyone’s itching to have to learn new names for birds named after naturalists or the like. If you find out something awful about Townsend or Swainson, by all means take their birds away. I think the conversations we have about people such as Audubon are good ones for the community to have. If we proceed intentionally and purposefully, people will understand why a name has to change and will enthusiastically embrace the new one.

  6. The press release does not state the names of the species likely to be renamed – nor the identities of the ornithologists after which they were named. Please could we have some transparency on this?

  7. As an amateur birder and nature lover, I’m thrilled by this decision by the AOS. As I learnt the names of birds and other organisms around me, I often wondered how common names were derived, especially ones with names of people, since these birds and other living creatures have been around for much much longer than the people they are named after. I always thought that this was such a travesty because the native people of the land where these organisms thrive have known these species for much longer than their “English” names.

    Kudos to AOS to finally doing the “right” and “appropriate thing.

  8. A recent article in Birding Magazine by Ashwin Sivakumar points out (although inadvertently) a practical problem with the wholesale change in bird names that has begun, and will continue until all honorifics are gone. Mr. Sivakumar points out that many birds named after people have long histories of being called something else, and to pick one of those historically used names would be a proper way to remove the eponyms. This has already been done in many cases: Red-necked Grebe instead of Hoelboell’s Grebe. The problem with the author’s approach is that he advocates being able to choose whatever old name you want. Imagine the confusion on a birdwalk in NE Colorado when a (formerly) McCown’s Longspur is sighted, and the trip leader calls out “Thick-billed Longspur”, only to have another experienced birder say “No, I think it’s a Bay-winged Longspur” (a historical name for the bird), and yet another say: “It’s a Black-breasted Longspur” (another name with historical precedent). New birders in the group can only be confused by the profusion of preferred names, and again when a Cooper’s Hawk is sighted, and again if a Swainson’s Hawk flies by. It’s enough to make some newbies hop into
    their cars, never to join a birdwalk again. The planned “game” of letting the public submit and support newly invented names will only make this worse.

  9. I have always provided feeders, bird houses, bird baths, flowers, plants and trees for food, shelter and nesting on my properties since I was young, and certified my properties as wildlife habitats through National Wildlife Federation for 20+ years. I think the renaming of birds is a bad idea. Why would a bird’s name make anyone take more interest in helping the birds? Sorry, but that is ridiculous. The birds don’t care what we call them. This is s prime example of the ever increasing narcissism in people today. Leave this alone! Very bad idea.

    1. On the other hand, the birds don’t care what we call them so why not change the names that have unpleasant associations? The generated news will bring publicity that might encourage new twitchers, and names that describe what you’re looking at or hearing are easier to remember.

  10. You have way too much time on your hands to be worrying about such an absurd and ridiculous practice as renaming birds. It’s clearly a little attention seeking endeavor. Maybe you should be focusing your time on protecting sea birds from being destroyed by windmills.

  11. Three billion fewer birds in the wild. Climate Change. Habitat loss. So many issues affecting both the population and the birding community.

    And the American Ornithological Society is renaming birds.

    When your every waking moment ought to be spent building a consensus to address the very real and existential threats we’re facing, you’ve chosen to dedicate/waste time and effort on a matter that is controversial and polarizing. It reminds me of the California school district which, at the height of the pandemic and with schoolchildren not allowed to attend class and falling (further) behind in their education, decided to rename all the schools they found offensive.

    Where are your priorities? More importantly, what are the priorities of your members and the public at large? Why wouldn’t you conduct a poll on this matter – at the very least among your 3000 members – before deciding if this is where you should devote your energies? You’ve made a divisive damaging decision at a time when all of us can least afford it.
    Like thee, Nero, play on the lute, beholding the towns burn.

    1. Naming birds is one of the functions of the American Ornithological Society. Correcting names they believe to be inappropriate or incorrect is part of that function. With all due respect, it seems as if you and others bemoaning the time wasted on this specific project has more to do with politics than a lack of focus on conservation.

  12. Globally, bird populations are rapidly declining, avoidably. Many species are on the brink of absolute extinction… again, avoidably. Birds allegedly protected under the MBTA 1918 are shot/murdered under “sport”. Ah, “name changes”, an almost great diversion from those matters with which you ought to be concerned but have no interest in. Most informative.

  13. Judging people of the past by today’s standards -uugghh. How about concentrating on things that really matter like habitat loss, pesticides and building collisions!?

  14. I am highly doubtful that simply changing names is going to get marginalized groups flooding to avian causes. I do like that the new terminology will be what it should have always been and that is descriptive. It will be a little difficult for us birders who are new to the birding world. It may discourage a few nascent birders. I agree with and like what you are doing but I do not believe it will achieve your lofty, admirable goal. Good try but you need a more robust initiative.

    1. Can’t wait, so excited to see the “new” pointy beak, red legs, fluffy feather, long tail, grey body and all the other better descriptive names.

  15. Pity the energies aren’t genuinely focused on protecting the birds (who actually need protection). This is absolute rubbish. Whether or not bird names need revision, for clarity or consistency, is a matter that can be intelligently debated, but this type of reasoning just panders to narrow ‘concerns’. It’s about ‘exciting’ people for the wrong reasons

  16. “As scientists, we work to eliminate bias in science. But there has been historic bias in how birds are named, and who might have a bird named in their honor. Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today, and the time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs,”
    What you are doing is not bringing any focus upon the birds but the exact opposite.
    Maybe you can explain exactly how a birds name can be exclusionary.
    My feeling on this is that the organisation is becoming irrelevant in their own mind and stirring the pot to try and gain some sort of support from a fringe group.

  17. So Charles Darwin who transformed the way we understand the natural world with ideas that, in his day, were nothing short of revolutionary. He and his fellow pioneers like Aristotle, Audubon, Merriam in the field of biology and ornithology who gave us insight into the fantastic diversity of life on Earth and its origins should be dismissed just because others didnt take the initiative to document the natural world before them? How is changing a few names going to slow down the loss of 3 billion more in the coming 53 years? I think you’re singing up the wrong tree..

  18. Surprising that so many people do not understand bias, and can’t quite grasp the importance of this change. Seeing people seriously not know about how it impacts society ((English naming after people) shows a real lack of understanding about systemic discrimination etc. And people ignorant of the issues surrounding bias in naming go on and on complaining about it. And it makes them look very uninformed. Naysayers need to improve their education on why it’s important (critical thinking, understanding) rather than wasting energy complaining about it.

  19. To all those that claim that this is wasted energy and effort in light of global bird declines: can you walk and chew gum? The AOS can rename, while also continuing to advocate and protect birds. And all those people that are concerned that renaming birds will distract from the “real issues” threatening birds, I wonder how many of you (and everyone else) are actually directly taking your own actions to protect birds. Do your windows prevent bird collisions? Do you use anticoagulant rodenticides? Do you allow your cats to roam freely outdoors? Is your landscaping beneficial for birds (native plants, slightly unkept yard rather mowed grass, low water use in the SW USA)? Do you minimize plastic consumption? etc, etc. Saving birds is not only AOS’s problem, it’s equally your responsibility. As for Scarl’s comment: “To reverse these alarming bird population declines, we need as many people as possible to get excited about birds and unite to protect them.” Ultimately, we need the people that make decisions to get excited about birds, rather than politicians that strip bird protections for monetary gain and to appease corporations. Also, AOS should include the International Ornithologists’ Union to embark on the name change endeavor.

  20. In the campaign to rename certain birds I hear some mention of new names which more accurately describe a bird’s appearance. I applaud this! And have long wished to see a certain Woodpecker, which has no visible red on its belly be given a new name which frankly acknowledges that this bird’s red is on its head! In my birding walks I encounter amateur birders who tell me” I spotted a Red-Headed Woodpecker. This is in a forested area I have birdied for more than 60 years, with never a site of a Red-Head! But, these woods have an abundance of Red” Bellied” Woodpeckers! When Intell these folks
    THIS is what they have seen they become indignant! “ No! This bird had red on its HEAD! It had NO red on its belly!” I have grown weary of having to explain, and trying to defend some early ornithologist’s error! Please, please,…..at long last, let common sense prevail! Here may I enter one vote for a new, more descriptive name for this bird!? Please consider RED-CAPPED WOODPECKER!

  21. If I understand how name changes affect life lists in the ebird world, I hope there will be a field available to trace back what I saw and figured out. Funny that Swainson and Townsend and Cooper were all mentioned and my list will change. I can’t imagine the mass changes and how paralyzing the huge database will react. The system’s log files will have to be mammoth! I do believe it will help new birders. Just yesterday I was wondering what my childhood Chicken Hawk is now. The name changed and it wasn’t offensive, was it? While you are at it, I can never see the ring on the duck’s neck. I’m just learning, carry on.

  22. So, will extinct species also get a name change? For instance, Bachman’s Warbler. I understand that the AOS has no jurisdiction over scientific nomenclature on that front and will defer to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature for Latin binomials. Thus Bachman will live on in the Latin: Vermivora bachmanii. Is the ICZN also contemplating depersonalisation of the scientific nomenclature?

  23. I applaud AOS for putting the subject of name change on the table, it’s a bold step and something very positive. On this subject, I propose that the name Himalayan Monal be changed to Danphe, which is what is known to locals in most parts of the Himalayan range where the bird is distributed. Monal is an occupied word for Satyr Tragopan in the same range. Naming Danphe as Himalayan Monal must be confusion by the White Saheb as s/he was listening to the locals and got mixed up with one name with the other. Replacing the name Himalayan Monal with Danphe will provide a depth of respect to the locals of the Himalayan region. And as locals of this region, we do not really have to cite wrong name for a beautiful bird. Its also national bird of Nepal. Thank you.

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