English Bird Names: Working to Get It Right

Hello, AOS members, partners, and friends!

As many of you know, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) has been working to determine the best process for proactively changing harmful and exclusionary English bird names for species within our geographic realm of responsibility. Our most recent public event was a Community Congress, in which we heard different perspectives about the implications of changing common English bird names and what this means for members of the broader ornithological and birding communities. Since then, we have been working thoughtfully and assiduously to develop a strong foundation from which to move this initiative forward. We have had many opportunities for reflection and course-correction along the way. Here’s where we are now.

AOS announced in June that we are forming an ad hoc committee to develop guidelines to identify and change harmful English bird names. The work of this committee to develop an inclusive, transparent, and effective process will be critical for the overall success of this initiative—we need to get this right. AOS leadership originally developed a charge for this ad hoc Committee and proposed a process for populating this team, but our Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Committee highlighted the need to take a step back and redirect our efforts toward soliciting broader input and representation to improve our charge and our process. In collaboration with D&I Committee members, we refined the charge of the ad hoc committee, defined important qualities of committee chairs and prospective members, and took additional steps to ensure this committee is poised to lay the groundwork for thoughtful and meaningful change.

The general charge of this new committee is to develop a process that will allow the American Ornithological Society to change harmful and exclusionary English bird names in a thoughtful and proactive way for species within AOS’s purview. The committee will investigate, evaluate, and determine best practices for broadening participation and perspectives in the process of changing English bird names. Important qualities of prospective members of this committee include: being diversity/equity/inclusion/justice (DEIJ)-minded, constructive, collaborative, engaging, thoughtful, and big-picture oriented. Committee members must also be open-minded and active listeners. Members of this ad hoc committee must be diverse and broadly representative of those who use English bird names. In addition, the committee should include individuals who are knowledgeable about the intricacies of global nomenclature in order to determine suitable alternative names. Over the next few weeks, we will finalize the leadership for our new ad hoc committee, begin populating this committee, and engage a facilitator to guide the committee’s conversations.

There are so many questions when it comes to changing harmful English bird names: Who gets to decide which names are harmful? How do we ensure we are choosing better names that will have lasting buy-in and impact? We are investing our time now in developing a foundational process that will give AOS the tools to answer these questions. Many of our stakeholders are concerned about inclusivity with bird names, and revisions also carry technical considerations that need to be considered. Developing a strong process to guide name changes will allow us to be flexible and inclusive in considering names that will remain relevant and appropriate far into the future. We realize that there is a trade-off between speed and inclusivity, and we believe that taking the time to get this process right is an investment that will serve our community best in the long run.

We also recognize the importance of communicating with our stakeholders about our process and our progress. Considering how to change harmful and exclusionary English bird names is at the forefront of our minds. Our aim is to provide more regular communication updates about where we are in this process, both to keep our members and partners informed but also to hold ourselves accountable for meaningful progress. 

Establishing the process of choosing better English bird names is one of many important initiatives that AOS is undertaking to create a more inclusive and welcoming ornithological community. In the coming weeks, we’ll release a blog post about AOS’s other efforts to become more equitable and broadly representative of ornithological stakeholders worldwide. We look forward to sharing more about these important efforts.

Mike Webster
AOS President

Colleen Handel
AOS President-Elect

Judith Scarl
AOS Executive Director


10/14/21: Post updated with signatures from AOS leaders.

COMMENTS

  1. I hope to see bird renaming that completely abandons the practice of assigning human names to birds, not just abandoning those names derived from humans that currently are being judged as not deserving to be honored. Modern bird names should reflect biology to the greatest degree possible, not historical figures and certainly not offensive terminology from the past. I commend, for example, past abandonment of the previous name for Long-tailed Ducks.

    1. I agree. I think getting it “right” certainly means no more eponymous and honorific common names for birds. Those names are never helpful, but can be hurtful. I look forward to my neighborhood warbler no longer being named after John Kirk Townsend (a problematic name), just as I look forward to the small, odd eider I am fortunate to see in the Arctic no longer named for Georg Wilhelm Steller (a less problematic name, in my opinion). But the effort to get it “right” should be broader. I support the view of Driver and Bond in their recent Ibis Forum article (https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.12984): correct all inaccurate, offensive, and inappropriate common bird names.

      1. What you suggest is perilously close to just throwing out all current English names and starting over. Once you add “inappropriate” and “inaccurate” to the list of disqualifiers, it will be chaos. Among New World Warblers (well, at least a few of them actually do warble) I find Connecticut, Nashville, Cape May, Tennessee, Prairie, Worm-eating, Hermit, Myrtle, and Palm that are inaccurate or impart no useful biological or ID information, and at least two often overlooked eponyms (Blackburnian and Magnolia) to add to the other 15 obvious ones (including four named after women). Among the warblers with “bird names” I find such “helpful” and “informative” names as White-striped (actually eyebrows; how many other warblers have white eyebrows?), Flavescent (means “yellowish”; aren’t most of them?), White-rimmed (sorry MacGillivray), Two-banded (no bands at all, just head stripes), Golden-bellied (I found over a dozen others with golden bellies), Black-eared (sorry Townsend and Blackburn), White-bellied, and Gray-headed (sorry again MacG. and CT. I note that Mr. Rizzolo asserts that eponyms are “never helpful” and “can be hurtful” (not that they ARE hurtful, but that they might be). I would reply that these names were VERY helpful to me as a budding young ornithologist and birder because they caused me to look them up and learn something, far more than I would ever learn from Black-backed Oriole, the descriptive alternative to Abeille’s. In fact, growing up I had two species of black-backed orioles in my North Carolina yard, neither of which were Abeille’s. I’m all in favor of changing eponyms if they ARE harmful or offensive, but never on the chance they MIGHT be. And just what does Mr. Rizzolo propose to replace Townsend’s?

  2. I also support moving away from naming birds after humans. A good first start would be for the NACC and SACC to look for biologically-based names whenever new names are needed (e.g. from splits).

  3. I would like to see this rephrased as Birds Names in English. Bird names that use problematic US birders for a name have nothing to with it being English. You are simply using the English language. Then later, when the Latin names are looked at carefully and problematic naming in that language is discovered, you can talk about Bird Names in Latin.

  4. The idea of doing away with eponyms altogether is a VERY bad one. We might manage it (poorly) in the AOS area, but worldwide it would be a nomenclatural disaster. Just take a look at the English names for storm petrels. They are predominantly eponyms that commemorate persons associated with the various species, and, as far as I can determine, none are offensive or harmful. Now, take a look at the birds themselves. Not many differences that would be useful for unique descriptive names are apparent, with just three basic colors to work with (black, gray, and white). Most of the obvious descriptive names have already been used. But what about geography? That gets you only so far, again because the obvious ones are mostly already taken, and especially when you have a species that breeds in Japan, Hawaii, and the South Atlantic, or others that breed on the same island but at different seasons. Ecology? Not a lot to choose from there, either. What is wrong with evoking a little history in a bird’s name? Let’s hope this ill-thought-out trend never extends to other eponymously-named organisms like Dahl Sheep, Douglas Fir, or Kamehameha Butterfly. In my opinion, we English-speaking ornithologists should nip this in the bud. I commend the AOS for emending offensive or harmful names, and for so far eschewing the proposal to do away entirely with historically well-established eponymous names.

    1. We’ve managed to name nearly all white-headed gulls regularly occurring in the ABA area without using eponyms (Heermann’s being the only exception, and an easy bird to rename by plumage or range). If we can do that for them, surely we can manage to do the same with any other taxon! There is real value in naming a species for its own characteristics, not the least of which is making it easier for new birders or scientists to learn to identify species. We have many other ways to honor and commemorate ornithologists whose work we admire.

      1. First, see my reply to Rizzolo. ( I guess Thayer’s no longer counts in this discussion.) Yes, you are correct that we have managed to name the relatively small number of white-headed gulls in the ABA area without eponyms, but don’t forget, this discussion and movement have a worldwide scope. Broadening your horizons a bit, we find Audouin’s, Belcher’s, Olrog’s, and Hartlaub’s. It’s a good thing white-headed gulls have variously-colored feet or breed in different areas, but what good information does the modifier “herring” , or Iceland for that matter, give you when you are looking at the bird in the field? Do “glaucous” and “glaucous-winged” really set those species apart in a useful way? It would be nice if every bird species had features distinctive enough to give it a non-confusing descriptive name, but that is far from the case. The fact is, English names are just that, names that we call birds when we don’t want to learn the Latin names. They may be informative, or they may not. Do I need to quote Shakespeare here?

  5. There are good reasons for replacing the names of birds named for alleged “discoverers” or the friends of “discoverers.” Providing English names that focus on key diagnostic features of a bird just makes sense. Framing it as a DEIJ issue is well-intentioned but unwise. Much of the “research” on dead ornithologists who are deemed to have been morally flawed and must be expunged is embarrassingly bad research, conducted on wikipedia and not the result of a deep-dive into the person’s life work. Humans have always been, and continue to be, morally complex creatures, and debates about the level of reprehensibility of one dead person’s ideas or statements weighed against arguments of the positive contributions that person might have made are unresolvable in many cases. A better approach is simply to establish “bird names for birds” and leave it up to historians and biographers to make judgments on whether a person’s life in balance was worthy or unworthy of remembering positively. There are good reasons to stop using the names of even historical persons we deem to be good and just persons in the names of birds. Let’s just give bird names to birds.

  6. I’m beyond excited to see the removal of Honorific Bird names. I respect that you all are taking the time out to look this over. It’s the little things, and there will be a lot that goes into this process. I just hope that all committee members within the AOS will become “active listeners.” During this time of much needed and important change within the birding community, it’s crucial we all : Listen to understand. Rather than Listening to Respond. Although I respect that everyone is trying to make this process efficient as possible, I’d like to share one thing. When reading this post, I couldn’t help but feel the main goal behind this process is to only remove “Harmful” Honorific Bird Names.

    No….

    I watched the Community Congress meeting back in April, and almost everyone on that panel was in favor of removing aaalll Honorific Bird Names, regardless of whether or not those men (mainly white) had questionable pasts. I’am also in favor of removing all Honorific Bird Names, no matter the backstory. The possibilities are endless, and I can’t wait to give birds more descriptive/creative names that highlight their beauty, rather than celebrating the “discoverer.”

    Listen… this won’t be easy at all. Not for one second, but this change within the birding community is vital. It is necessary. Many will disagree and say otherwise, that doesn’t mean a thing.

    We are running a Marathon, not a Sprint. I believe that if you get rid of one honorific bird name, you might as well scratch off the remaining 149…

    Slow and steady wins the race, and we will take down all Honorific bird names. One beauty, at a time.

    Because Birds. Deserve Better!

    1. “Many will disagree…that doesn’t mean a thing”???? Good attitude! I believe those who need something shiny and new should turn their attention elsewhere.. The old saying assures us that if something isn’t broke don’t try to fix it. as someone who has spent far too much time reconciling common (and even scientific) names among various publications I ,for one, don’ need to waste more lifespan due to someone’s new hobby horse.

    2. Just a quick comment on the panel you mention in your post. That panel was obviously selected to include only persons who were likely to agree with the premise that we should eliminate honorific names. It did not include a single professional taxonomist (rather like having a medical discussion without any physicians) though plenty were available of at least two genders and multiple ethnicities. So much for “inclusivity”.

  7. I also agree with Doug Pratt. English names are just that: English. If we going to change the names lets go all the way back to indigenous names. The Ila-Tonga people call the Black-shouldered Kite Paga paga. It has a nice ring to it and is also the their name for a helicopter and wind pump. Closer to home here in Alaska we can call one of the eiders the Utqiagvik Eider.

  8. Perhaps someone might explain what makes a historical figure “problematic” I mean, we’re not talking Nathan Forrest, Adolf Hitler or Darth Vader here. Do those involved in this finish walking on water and spend some time rendering judgement? The bad news is that we’re All problematic to some extent. It might be said that the History Police are arrogant, egotistic, and overly sensitive (and sometimes racist and sexist). [note the ‘might be said’. hey, I didn’t say it!] It seems that we’ve begun to emulate an organized religion where those who stray in any way are cast out. It’s a hell of a path for a scientific organization.

  9. It appears that this “ad hoc committee” is overlooking a fundamental reality associated with modern English bird names. Moreover, as I looked at the recent blogs on AOS on “Getting English Bird Names Right” within the AOS’s “geographic realm,” I felt a huge feeling of déjà vu in relation to the social “churn” we are all experiencing in the last few years as the people in our country become more and more polarized and in certain ways even more extreme as we push strongly held, opinion-driven views too often unsupported by verified and verifiable factual information. Are we now seeing a similar sort of social over-reaction developing within our primary ornithological community (but AOS is only one professional group among several in North America, setting aside the Birding community represented by ABA) as the “ad hoc” English bird names group appears to be aiming its primary ire at the use of eponyms (honorific names)—I doubt there are many such issues related to racist and ethnic slurs as represented in the easily solved Long-tailed Duck issue? The blogs that I speak of here often use the same familiar “buzz-words” and phrases commonly heard on our human social and news media today in talking about difficult issues dealing with racism and ethnicity in a human context, words such as “harmful,” “exclusionary,” “inclusivity,” “stakeholders,” “equity,” “lasting buy-in,” and others. The authors of the blog identify themselves as “AOS Staff” (I presume this term merely means the AOS blog staff) and their new committee is simply characterized as “ad hoc.” Their leadership appears to be populated by people of younger generations in the society and may signal that the group has less than full and enthusiastic support in AOS as a whole. Since when has the NACC (and SACC) jettisoned their responsibility over nomenclature within their classification mandates?
    In general, as an old guy (both ornithologist as an adult and birder since boyhood) that has been a member of the AOU/AOS since 1960, my views on human social issues are on the progressive side, but my approach to the English names of species in any taxon is strictly conservative. Since birds could care less, such names are simply monikers that only work well when they are standardized for bird people among English-speakers worldwide (not just for North American people) and are unique for every avian species. After years of effort by dedicated ornithologists and some negotiation among national groups working under the aegis of the IOC, most English names of bird species around the world are currently unique to each species and they mostly find support in multiple international bird lists. To some extent, all lists are “still working” on concordance of such names to the extent achievable. Differences often remain in part because different professional bird societies and groups vary on whether current evidence supporting upgrade to species rank is sufficient to make the change at any particular time. Other issues arise as well. Scientific names are meant to reflect kinship relationships and all of these are governed by International Committees of Zoological or Botanical Nomenclature (based in Europe). These names are rife with eponymic genus and trivial (Latinized) words in binominal names and will remain so. The Latin or Latinized names of species (the two word combination) cannot be stable so long as we still struggle to understand kinship relationships among species and genera (and higher groups). The English names of birds however have the potential of providing a high level of stability independent of taxonomic changes in scientific names except for splits that reflect species limits within broad new ranges (so Winter Wren remains the name for the inter-continental species after a split). But, often, new names for split taxa could seek to use non-eponymic names without disturbing other English names already on prevailing worldlists. I for one could care less about what a bird is called so long as it is reasonably appropriate or historical in nature and does not include human attitudes or slurs.
    My personal platform on the topic of English name of birds is that bird people who use avian English names benefit by increasing (when possible) and certainly maintaining the gains in stability of such names worldwide. Today, ornithologists collaborate with colleagues around the globe and like regular folks they often use English avian names in ordinary communication and bird journals because they are familiar and understood by all. Birders are globe-trotting all the time around the world to experience avian species in their native habitats. They too depend on standardized English names, otherwise simple communication breaks down. The more English names change for whatever reason, the more discourse is interrupted by individuals requesting clarification on a name. I have experienced this in my participation in birding tours given even relatively low non-conformity between present world lists of birds. Beyond my own platform, shared with many other ornithologists, I also agree fully with the comments made by Douglas Pratt in response to the blogs that stimulated my effort to bring a broader issue into the discussion of the AOS Staff.
    Finally, I am afraid this ad hoc effort by well-intended non-taxonomists in the AOS will end up identifying so many English names they regard as “exclusionary” (sacrificing all eponyms is a ridiculous goal; I suspect few additional English names regarded as socially harmful to humans will be found) that misplaced regional pressure within AOS to upend international gains in stability of such names among English-speaking bird people will result. Honorific names are of historical interest in relation to English names and most are not more difficult to memorize than a name based on plumage, morphology, body size, geography, long-standing national tradition, or Anglicized foreign (e.g., Hawaiian) names. AOS members should not mind learning more about people who contributed to the history of ornithology around the world (e.g., Stresemann’s “Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present,” 1975; Farber’s “The Emergence of Ornithology as a Scientific Discipline: 1760-1850),” (1982); Davis’s “Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology,” volume 4, 2019), thus providing additional memory context to the ‘bare-bones’ names of people memorialized in English names. Eponyms have been introduced for birds in all parts of the world. We cannot afford to treat North America as a single place in which to undertake some grand, ill-placed charge focused on a particular group of bird names that reflect opinion more than anything else. Beyond that, so far as the AOS is concerned, members of NACC and SACC make the final decisions on English names of New World birds. Their choices will not depend on how many people support name changes based on expressed opinion and personal advocacy coming from “AOS Staff” or birders more broadly.

    1. Dr. Greenlaw,
      Thank you for your AOS membership and for this very thoughtful response to our blog post. We will give your comments careful consideration as we consider the many aspects and potential outcomes of changing harmful, exclusionary, and derogatory common English bird names. We have also taken your suggestion seriously that we are not being as transparent as we could be with our blog post attribution. Thank you for this feedback. In the past, we have used the general author name “AOS Staff” as a catch-all when publishing blog posts and announcements. In the interest of full transparency and unambiguous communication going forward, we will assign “AOS Leadership” as the author of future blog posts that originate from members of AOS leadership and will include specific attribution for the post’s author(s) within the post itself, and future general announcements will be attributed to AOS. We will continue the practice of including a byline within the blog post for all of our Guest posts. Additionally, we want to assure you that the NACC and SACC remain the taxonomic authorities within their respective purview, but any decisions on changes to English bird names unrelated to taxonomic decisions have been temporarily paused, pending the recommendations of this new ad hoc committee.

  10. As a liberal, progressive biologist with a keen interest in the history of ornithology, I believe that getting rid of patronyms (so-called honorifics) is a mistake that will result in lots of young ornithologists and serious birders losing track of some very important historical players in our science, including many women. I support shining a light on historical personalities who were demonstrably racist, but this can be done without changing the nomenclature for all birds that have been named for humans.

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