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The American Ornithological Society (AOS), the organization of bird scientists that determines the official English and Latin names for North America’s bird species, announced this week that they are embarking on a process to change the English names of the approximately 152 North American birds and 111 South American birds named after people.
Birds with eponymous names can be found in every section of a field guide, from the Bullock’s Oriole to the Ross’s Goose and Wilson’s Plover. Among sparrows alone, 11 different species are named after people. Although birders use these names on a regular basis, their origins can be opaque and have often been nearly forgotten. Across the globe, many eponymous names were coined in the 18th and 19th centuries as white naturalists “discovered” new birds in territories previously held by non-white peoples, naming them after the original collectors of bird specimens, fellow scientists, other prominent figures of the time, and even their family members.
A small but growing contingent of birders had been aware for years that these names could be harmful or exclusionary, given many honor people now understood to have committed racist acts, and had begun to favor moving away from them. But the effort took on new meaning and haste during the racial reckoning that swept across the country and birding world in 2020. After the Chris Cooper Central Park incident, which occurred on the same day as George Floyd’s murder, and the creation of Black Birders Week, birders Jordan Rutter and Gabriel Foley were inspired to found the “Bird Names For Birds” movement. They launched a petition to change common bird names to monikers that drop any association with people and instead describe species’ appearance or ecology—attributes that are also more practical and helpful for making identifications in the field.
Traditionally, changes to official English bird names begin as proposals to the AOS’s North American Classification and Nomenclature Committee and are only accepted if there is a scientific or taxonomic justification of the change. These changes happen routinely, and are why the Rufous-sided Towhee, for example, is now called the Eastern Towhee. But a 2019 proposal under this system to update the name of McCown’s Longspur, named for a Confederate general, was initially rejected. McCown’s Longspur officially became the Thick-billed Longspur in August 2020 after the establishment of an interim set of guidelines for handling such changes.
Since then, the AOS has continued to cautiously engage with the idea of changing eponymous bird names. “We are a group of scientists, and we study things, and we make very considered decisions,” says Colleen Handel, a wildlife biologist with the USGS’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage, Alaska. A virtual “Community Congress” AOS held on the issue in April 2021 eventually led to the establishment of an ad hoc committee that was charged with developing a process for reexamining other bird names. That committee’s final 32-page report, published on the day of the announcement, lays out the road map for the organization’s next steps.
The renaming effort will begin in 2024 with a subset of eponymously named bird species, still to be selected, that are found primarily in the United States and Canada. The AOS has committed to engaging the public in the renaming process and to establishing a new, permanent committee to oversee the English names of North American birds—one that will include “a diverse representation of individuals with expertise in the social sciences, communications, ornithology, and taxonomy,” according to an AOS statement. Species’ scientific or Latin names, which must follow a much stricter set of rules determined by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, will not be affected.
A separate AOS committee traditionally oversees the English names of birds that range mainly in South America, and the AOS plans to eventually update eponymous South American bird names as well. This will involve further conversations with ornithologists and organizations based throughout Latin America.
“Birds have been facing unprecedented conservation challenges, with the loss of three billion birds over the last half century, and we need to have people united in a very positive way towards reversing those declines and taking care of the birds that we have this tremendous responsibility for,” says Handel. The names of birds are the entryway into the world of birds, she notes. “We want to make sure that this world of birds is open to as many people as want to be involved with them.”
The process of updating English names will continue to unfold for years to come, as it will take time to update field guides, apps, and other reference materials after new names begin to be announced. Birders, many of whom will not have been closely following this debate over the past three years, will need time to adjust to using unfamiliar names. Aligning the new names with the banding codes used by the United States Geological Survey and on platforms like eBird will also take time.
For her part, Rutter of Bird Names for Birds is elated about the announcement after her years of advocacy. The inclusive nature of the renaming plans is especially promising, she says. “It’s incredible to have a new process that includes an opportunity for everyone in the bird community, no matter how they interact with birds, no matter if they’re an AOS member or not, to participate and help us get really creative with new ways to celebrate birds through their names.”