Thursday, February 25, 2021

What’s all the fuss about Bird Names?

 Since the dawn of language, humans have been pointing at birds and giving them names. In 1735 a Swedish botanist/naturalist and explorer, Carolus Linnaeus, published a manuscript titled Systema Naturae (The System of Nature), which organized living things into a standardized system of “binomial nomenclature”. This consists of a genus and species name, based on Latin or Greek (or “Latinized”). His manuscript also established higher levels of classification including Kingdom, Classes, and Orders. As subsequent scientists adopted and used this system, it became an excellent tool to indicate evolutionary relationships, and additional levels were added; Phylum was added under Kingdom and Family was added under Order. These so-called “scientific names” for organisms still form the basis for standardizing names, including bird names, around the world to this day, although there is still a LOT of flux in these names too.

The use of English names is not as well organized. Sticking just to birds, more than a century ago both the American Ornithologists Union (AOU, but now the American Ornithological Society – AOS) and the British Ornithological Union (BOU) took a stab at creating “standardized English names” for their respective regions. This resulted in the species known by the scientific name of Gavia immer being given the English name of Great Northern Diver by the BOU, and Common Loon by the AOS! Additionally, beginning in the 1900s, the BOU also began establishing standardized French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese names (and perhaps others), while the AOS also began establishing standardized French names in 1998 and Spanish names after that. In the 1970s and 1980s, world bird lists were published that attempted to resolve regional differences in English names, and this effort continues to this day with plenty of contentious debates.

A less scientific, but still important question is, do the names of birds make sense? Yellow-billed Cuckoos used to be called “rain crows” because they often vocalize right before it rains. But while this behavior seems to be accurate, they are not closely related to crows. Worm-eating Warblers feed mostly on grasshoppers found in clumps of dead leaves near the ground, very rarely on worms. Have you ever seen the sharp shins on a Sharp-shinned Hawk? Tennessee and Nashville Warblers don’t breed or winter in that state or city. Connecticut Warblers are very rare spring and rare fall migrants in their namesake state. I have seen Cape May Warblers in magnolia trees more often than I have seen Magnolia Warblers there, and have never seen either one at Cape May!

Bird names change all the time; scientific names being most important of course. English names have always been a topic of controversy, and every time there is a change there is a wave of complaints from birders. I recall some name changes back in the 1970s that changed Marsh Hawk to Northern Harrier, Duck Hawk to Peregrine Falcon, and Pigeon Hawk to Merlin, among many others. We all wondered, how will we ever learn these new bird names? Change is hard. But now, decades on, do we even give these “new” names a second thought? In general, we get over it and move on. One source of a lot of old “colloquial” names for birds in my personal library is Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson (Doubleday, 1936). While some are confusing, and others are charming, it is jaw-dropping how many offensive, sexist, and racist names have been given to our birds over the past 250 years.

A recent English name change involved a species found breeding across Canada, northern Europe, northern Asia, and Alaska, with the stable over time scientific name of Clangula hyemalis. The English name for this species given by the BOU is Long-tailed Duck, which was established long before it was discovered to be in the New World. But in North America, it was given the name Oldsquaw. The etymology (story behind the name) has had a variety of explanations, ranging from the idea that it was derived from a rough transcription of the bird’s calls (ow-owe-let), to various comparisons to female Native Americans that were known to be both racist and sexist, but the name was kept in place regardless. When the AOS changed the name, only at the beginning of the current century, the rationale was to be consistent with other regions of the world. If we are truly wanting to be consistent, we’d also call our Loons Divers. Changing this name was also encouraged in order to help with the Long-tailed Duck’s conservation because much of its breeding range in the New World occurs on the lands of native peoples, and it was thought that it would be difficult to enlist their help if the name of the bird was offensive to them. While most white people can understand how the name Oldsquaw would be offensive, based on our sanitized version of history (and old Western movies), actually asking native women about this name reveals that the meaning of that name is even more offensive, and even more vulgar; I won’t go into details here. Even today, a very few birders complain that we should still be using that old name. It is always important to ask the person who is offended how they feel, if we truly want to understand the effect that these names have on them, and if we want to expand birding to a more diverse population that will better help us conserve birds.

Why do we name birds after people anyway? Who were Lucy and Virginia? Does anyone know anything about Swainson, Hammond, Upcher, Boehm, Snethlage, Pelzeln, Jelski, Taczanowski, or Mrs. Moreau? Birds are named after all these people, and more. What do these names tell us about the bird? Nothing. And the form they take is typically in the possessive (i.e., Swainson’s Thrush), which is just weird from a biological perspective. Most often, these names are to honor someone, and it is considered a great honor to have a bird named after you. In 2013, the Striolated Puffbird from South America was split into two species and the Western Striolated-Puffbird was given the scientific name of Nystalus obamai, in honor of President Barack Obama.

In some cases birds have been named after donors to the expeditions on which they were discovered. In 1991, in a somewhat controversial action, the discoverer of a new species decided to auction the scientific name to the highest bidder in order to raise money for conservation of the bird's habitat. It was named Vireo masteri (Choco Vireo) after the winner Dr. Bernard Master, whose bid was accepted for USD $75,000, and his donation created the Pangan ProAves Reserve in Colombia, the first ProAves bird preserve in Colombia. In other cases, they were simply named after people that the person doing the naming admired for some reason. Bonaparte’s Gull and Bonaparte’s Nightjar were not named after the French dictator, and the scientific species name of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma castro) is likewise not named after the Cuban dictator. But if there were birds named after dictators, wouldn’t there be calls to change them?

Among the ~350 species of hummingbird (Trochilidae), only 9 have been named after people. With such a colorful family, it is easy to come up with English names that are more descriptive of the appearance or behavior of the species. Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae) are more challenging, with more than ~420 species of mostly nondescript and similar-appearing birds making it more difficult to come up with descriptive names. There are 29 species of Tyrant Flycatcher named after people. Worldwide, there are hundreds of birds named after people.

Just a quick diversion away from birds, just this month (January 2021) it has been determined that a population in the Gulf of Mexico thought to be Bryde’s Whales (Balaenoptera edeni) (named after TWO people…Bryde and Eden), is actually a separate and endangered species, with a population of less than 100. The new species is Rice’s Whale (Balaenoptera ricei), named after the researcher who determined it was a separate species. So, naming new species after people continues by taxonomists in many fields of zoology, and is likely to continue. Entomologists sometimes have more fun with names, with flies having Genus names like Aha, and Ono.

Over the past few decades, the AOS has considered changing all English names of birds named after people on occasion (scientific names also contain names of people, but are likely not being considered for change), but World bird lists have not yet addressed this. Prior positions of the AOS were that “political correctness” was not sufficient grounds to change an English name. But this politically-charged term is sometimes mis-used by those who are being called out for being overtly offensive.

In 2020, following months of protests against racism, the Bird Names for Birds campaign ( was created to urge the American Ornithological Society to address the issue of eponyms and honorific bird names with derogatory or oppressive implications. There are 149 other bird names within the AOS region (Greenland to Panama) that they consider equally problematic. The average birder, a large percentage of whom are white, has no idea who many of the people are that these birds are named after. The Audubon organization is now reckoning with the grave-robbing andother offenses against Native Americans done by its namesake ornithologist, and other conservation organizations are facing the complicated truth about their founders who may have done great conservation work, but also may have done racist and other offensive things during their lives.

The most recent name AOS change to be confirmed is McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). Proposed and rejected in 2018, but in 2020 it was changed to Thick-billed Longspur. Personally, I think that a better name could have been selected given that all the longspurs have thick bills, but I will limit my complaining about this change while realizing that Sharp-shinned Hawk is just as bad. Thick-billed is apparently a literal translation of the Genus name. It would have been worse to just use the Genus name, as we have done with other species…what exactly is a Phainopepla? Translation: shining robe.

Given that John P. McCown was a Confederate general (, who almost nobody has ever heard of, or could pick out in a lineup, it seems like this change should be a no-brainer. With all the issues this creates for African American birders, I am very happy that this name has been changed. There will be (and have been) complaints from a very few white birders who do not think this is a problem, and that we should ignore the racism inherent in many of our bird names. I strongly disagree, and I look forward to the interesting and creative English bird names that the AOS comes up with to replace these names that are offensive to too many of our fellow, and future-fellow birders. It will be difficult for us to learn the new names at first, but just as Merlin, Peregrine, and Harrier are second nature to us now, so will these new names be before too long.