Posts Tagged ‘Bird Names’

I have been thinking and writing about changing the names of birds for a little while now. Particularly, I am talking about the birds that have been named after people. In fact, an article I wrote on this subject set off a series of interactions between me and a publisher that led me to withdraw my support and contributions to several magazines that I had been writing for for years. If you want to read about that story, it starts here.

I think that the names of birds that have been named after people should be changed for a few reasons. One is that these names ignore the names used by indigenous peoples for these birds. Another is that the people for whom birds are named represent very little diversity. And an additional reason is that the people who have had birds named after them include some distinctly shady characters (racists, frauds, etc.). Allow to elaborate.

Bachman's Sparrow Songs and Calls - Larkwire
Adult Bachman’s Sparrow

One reason why the current bird names are a problem is that the idea of a (generally) European individual coming across a bird, figuring it is a new species to the scientific world, and naming it according to that European’s preference ignores the indigenous recognition of that species. Indigenous peoples have recognized, and named, the birds around them for thousands of years, but these names have been largely ignored when establishing modern bird names. In the scientific community, there are general rules for naming species and one of those rules is that the name first applied to a species is the one that gets used. What this means is that if one person in England and one person in Germany (as representative examples) both separately identify and name the same species, the name that is officially adopted is the one used by whoever named it first. So using this standard, names applied earlier by indigenous peoples around the world should have priority over names applied later by European explorers. The fact that they have not been is a product of the very Eurocentric nature of the science and age of exploration in the 1700s and 1800s, and it should be changed. All peoples from around the world should be represented and included in the choosing of species names. No one group should have control of this process.

Another reason why current bird names are a problem is that most of the people who birds have been named after, and that are recognized today, have been straight white men. This is largely a product of the fact that most of the people doing the naming of birds that are recognized today have also been straight white men. If you look in a bird book today, you will see few-to-no birds named after women, few-to-no birds named after people of color, and few-to-no birds named after members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is racist and sexist and should be changed. If people are going to be recognized with the honor of having a bird bear their name, there is no reason why those people should all come from a small and narrow subset of humanity. There have been many women, many people of color, and many members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have contributed to to our understanding of birds and who could be honored by naming a bird after them.

Featured Birds: Baltimore and Bullock's Orioles
A male Bullock’s Oriole.

A third reason why current bird names are a problem is that some of the people whom birds have been named after don’t really deserve the honor. Some people were slave owners such as John Bachman (Bachman’s Sparrow) who also wrote of the inherent inferiority of black people. Some people were dramatically unpatriotic such as John Porter McCowan (McCowan’s Longspur) who was a confederate general who fought to destroy the United States of America. Some people desecrated the sacred sites of indigenous peoples such as John Kirk Townsend (Townsend’s Warbler and Townsend’s Solitaire) who dug up the graves of Native American men, women, and children and sent their heads to various collectors and pseudoscientists. And some people were con artists such as William Bullock (Bullock’s Oriole) who owned and curated a natural history museum that included specimens intentionally faked to attract publicity. These are people whom I do not think are worthy of being honored by having a bird named after them, but because they had money, friends, and connections we now frequently speak their names (I watched a lovely Bullock’s Oriole just a couple of days ago).

Some things are starting to change. For example, the name of the McCowan’s Longspur has been changed to the Thick-billed Longspur in light if the racist and unpatriotic actions of the confederate general. But far more needs to change in order to make the culture and community of birding as open and inclusive as it should be. A current movement is forming with the idea of changing the name of all birds that are named after people to names that are more descriptive of their natural history. This idea points out that the name Bendire’s Thrasher does not provide any useful information about the bird itself; however, Blue Grosbeak does provide some useful information (namely, that it is blue). Changing the names of all birds that are currently named after people also side-steps the problem of deciding who is and who is not worthy of having a bird named after them. Society’s morals are constantly changing, and so attempting to reinterpret past figures according to modern standards is, and will continue to be, difficult. Instead, we can make the names far more lasting and useful if we simply change the currently used names, and end the practice of naming species after people.

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