The president of the American Ornithological Society tells BirdWatching that the organization’s leadership supports the recent push to change the names of birds that are named for people and that he is forming an ad-hoc committee now to address the issue over the coming months.
“We are in favor of taking any actions that would make ornithology and birding more diverse and inclusive,” says Mike Webster, the current AOS president. (He is also the director of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is the Robert G. Engel Professor of Ornithology at Cornell.) “That would include changing exclusionary or harmful bird names, where that’s necessary. I think the question is, how to go about doing that in a thoughtful way that maintains stability of bird names because that stability is important. But we absolutely are in favor of changing names where it will help increase diversity and inclusion.”
In the summer of 2020, as a movement to address racial injustice took hold nationwide, birders Jordan Rutter and Gabriel Foley along with Jessica McLaughlin and Alex Holt began a campaign called Bird Names for Birds. They posted a petition calling for common names of bird species in North America that are named for people to be changed to names that reflect something unique about each species.
The argument, simply put, is that the name Kirtland’s Warbler, for example, doesn’t tell us anything about the bird yet maintains a sort of living monument to a person who may or may not have had any history with the bird. A name such as Jack Pine Warbler, however, which is sometimes used for this species, gives people information about the bird – namely, that it relies on jack pine woodlands.
Over the summer, the Bird Names for Birds petition gained thousands of signatures. Last August, Rutter and Foley published an op-ed in the Washington Post, and the topic was covered broadly in the birding media. Within a few weeks, the North American Classification Committee (NACC) of the AOS revisited the case of the longspur species named for a Confederate soldier and renamed it Thick-billed Longspur.
But it was just one species. No fewer than 149 other birds from Alaska to Panama (the purview of the NACC) bear the names of people — from Ross’s Goose to Scott’s Oriole.
Over the next several months, the AOS held listening sessions with various groups on the topic of these eponymous names, and in mid-April, its Diversity and Inclusion Committee hosted a live online video meeting, dubbed the Community Congress on English Bird Names, to discuss the topic. (It’s available to watch on YouTube.) Leaders from the National Audubon Society, eBird, Birds Canada, the Bird Banding Laboratory, the American Birding Association, and the North American Breeding Bird Survey, as well as field-guide authors David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman attended. All spoke in favor of adopting more bird-centric common names; several suggested that a process begin soon and some noted potential hiccups that may arise.
The meeting ended, however, without an indication of what, if anything, might happen next.
Webster says that he is forming an ad-hoc committee of roughly a dozen people this week to take the next steps.
“We’re forming a diverse committee that will collect and discuss information that people have on attitudes toward eponymous or otherwise harmful common bird names,” he explains, “and then secondly use this information to make recommendations for proactive steps the society can take toward having a process that will change those harmful names where needed.”
He says he hopes to have “recommendations by late fall or the end of this calendar year. Some would like to see us move faster, but we do want to do a thoughtful job with it and make changes and develop a process that’s solid.”
During the mid-April Community Congress, several speakers said they think all eponymous names should be changed. Webster says that would be a question for the new committee to answer. “That’s exactly the sort of information we want this committee to gather,” he explains. “We heard some great viewpoints and input during the Congress. And now this committee will be reaching out to a lot of birding groups and ornithologists to try and get the diversity of opinions out there and better understand where our community is.
“Do they think that all eponymous names should be changed, or just some of them? We just don’t have that information right now, but we’re hoping to have it soon.” And while he said he can’t say yet who will be on the committee, he noted: “I’m hoping in a week or so we’ll have it formed and can say who it is, but we’re striving to have a very diverse committee in terms of age, ethnicity, backgrounds, gender, so that we can really get diverse viewpoints.”
Webster adds that the process the committee recommends for addressing eponymous names should be broad enough that AOS can use it to address other troublesome names in the future. He notes that the NACC list include French common names for Canada and that there are Spanish and Portuguese common names in Latin America, “so the hope is to develop a robust process so that we can deal with problematic names that arise in the future, not necessarily just those that are problematic today.”
During the Congress, Kaufman explained why he thinks all eponymous names need to go, and he argued for the kind of committee that Webster is setting up.
“If we try to parse all these historical figures saying, OK, well, Cassin was good, but Townsend was bad etc., that could go on forever,” Kaufman says. “And I know a couple of people suggested doing this in stages, but I think rather than nibbling away at the problem, I’d like to see a talented and diverse committee that would tackle all of these eponyms at once. They could come up with alternatives, spend a lot of time getting buy-in from the larger community, and then establish a long lead time to a date when we flip the switch and adopt all of these new, better names.”
Webster adds: “We’re looking forward to moving forward on this and making progress. I think it’ll be a good thing for ornithology and a good thing for birding, and again, any steps that the AOS can take to make birding and ornithology more inclusive and more broadly represented, the better. And we’re looking forward to having that happen.”
Look for a more in-depth article about this topic in the July/August issue of BirdWatching magazine.