After hearing from the many perspectives shared during the Community Congress on English Bird Names hosted by the AOS Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) subcommittee in mid-April, the AOS Council is in the process of forming an ad hoc committee charged with developing recommendations for guidelines and procedures used to identify and change harmful English bird names. This new committee will not have the responsibility of changing English bird names, but rather will make recommendations on a process to do so that includes the perspectives from many stakeholders in the broader ornithological and birding communities. Through the formation of this committee, the AOS leadership seeks to facilitate a constructive discussion, learn from varying perspectives, and broaden and diversify participation in the process of determining the future of eponymous English bird names (birds named after people), while recognizing the important role that bird names play in avian research and conservation.
Three co-chairs have agreed to lead this ad hoc committee, Erica Nol, Carlos Daniel Cadena, and Courtney Conway; the composition of the rest of the committee is under development. Our goal in building this committee is to represent the broad demographic and geographic diversity of stakeholders interested in the determination and use of English bird names, experts in nomenclature, users of English bird names, and society leadership. This committee will include representatives from throughout the ornithological and birding community, the AOS’s classification and nomenclature committees, D&I Committee, and Council. The co-chairs are empowered to add other members and advisors who represent varied viewpoints.
The ad hoc committee’s commission
Our goal is to have specific, informed recommendations by early 2022 for a process that will allow the society to thoughtfully and proactively change English bird names where such changes are deemed warranted. To be very clear, this committee will not be charged with proposing new bird names, but rather will provide a set of recommendations for a new process for changing bird names that are harmful or exclusionary. The timeline and process for identifying and changing names will depend on the recommendations developed by this committee.
Why eponymous bird names can be problematic
Scientific and English bird names are the entry point to accessing all of the information that has been gathered over many decades of research on bird species—information that is key to the broader understanding, enjoyment, and conservation of those species by the ornithological and birding communities. Historically, scientists describing new taxa have recognized the significant contributions of other scientists through eponyms, just as people throughout history have recognized significant contributions through the naming of not only animals and plants, but also streets, cities, countries, mountains, and much more. Eponymous English bird names, particularly those named after people who supported or promoted racist behaviors, are currently being evaluated in the context of whether use of the names may be exclusionary or harmful. AOS is committed to anti-racism and unequivocally supports increasing diversity and inclusion in ornithology, including efforts to change problematic bird names that are harmful or otherwise act as barriers to participation in ornithology and the enjoyment of birds.
AOS is leading by example
Ongoing discussions with AOS partners will be key to maintaining taxonomic stability on global lists and to minimizing the disruption and confusion associated with name changes. The AOS has long been responsible for determining English names for North and South American birds, but bird name revision is a global issue that extends beyond our purview to other taxonomic authorities and partners. Although the AOS has responsibility only for English names of birds of the Americas, the AOS can lead by example in changing harmful English names for species within our geographical region.
We are excited to put this important task into the hands of our ad hoc committee, and look forward to receiving their recommendations on the process for reviewing and changing English bird names to ensure ornithology and birding are as inclusive as possible.
As soon as the ad hoc committee roster is finalized, we will share the list of committee members and advisors. Questions and comments can be directed to AOS President Mike Webster at email@example.com.
No English bird name has prevented anyone from seeing that bird, if they want to. Honestly, the birds themselves don’t care a whit about it. I understand the stated concerns. I do. These “problematic” eponyms aren’t the issue. It is our own prejudices and bias and thin skin that lead to problems. The name of a long dead whoever does not cause anything. Instead of rising above it all we are succumbing to our own unresolved neuroses and trying to drag everyone else along for the ride. The truth is, no one is perfect and to be judge someone a century later by others who never met the person is a bit pretentious on our part. In a hundred years all our wokeness will be seen by people who never met us and they will shake their heads chuckle at our narcissism. I sincerely hope the committee comes back with reasoned and mature recommendations.
Derivation of motivation may well be narcissistic – as if the words we choose could clean our slate of bias guilt. But that would only be a surface scrape of the real story here. This speaks to quality assurance of our life processes. If we discover that something as simple as a name can send a message of racism we did not intend, what’s wrong with correcting that mistake?