The American Ornithological Society issued a landmark statement on November 1, 2023, signaling a significant change in bird naming practices. Birds in North America will no longer be named after people, according to the association. This decision is an important step towards a more comprehensive and less controversial approach to the classification of bird species. Starting next year, the association plans to begin work on renaming about 80 species found in the United States and Canada. The move has sparked excitement and debate in the birding community and beyond.
The Power of Names: Shifting the Paradigm
Colleen Handel, president of the American Ornithological Society, emphasized the power of names and their ability to influence our perceptions. In her statement, she acknowledged that some English bird names are linked to the past and have specific and harmful meanings in the present context. The decision to rename these birds came from a desire to make birding more accessible and suitable for many hobbyists. It also represents an attempt to dissociate birdwatching from its problematic historical associations.
Rather than looking at each bird named after an individual, the association took a holistic approach. This means that the birds that are currently named after people will go through a process of renaming. Notable examples include Wilson’s Fly and Wilson’s Hole, named after the 19th-century naturalist Alexander Wilson. Additionally, Audubon’s Boathouse, formerly used to honor famed bird illustrator and slave owner John James Audubon, has been renamed.
A Growing Movement for Change
The decision to stop naming new names after people comes amid a broader movement to address historical injustices and create a more inclusive environment. Supporters say many English bird names evoke memories of oppression, slavery and genocide. A petition sent to the American Ornithological Society in 2020 by the Bird Names for Birds Initiative, founded by ornithologists, called for birds with harmful common names to be renamed. They described this name as a “picture word” that reflected the values of their ancestors.
The movement for change gained momentum after the 2020 incident in Central Park, in which a white woman falsely reported black birdwatcher Christian Cooper to the police. This event led to the creation of Black Bird Week to raise awareness of the challenges black people face in the outdoors and to celebrate and uplift blackbirds. It has also promoted similar initiatives in a variety of scientific fields to address systemic issues and biases. Challenges and discussions
The decision to rename dozens of birds without evaluating each individual case was met with skepticism. Bird watchers and ornithologists expressed mixed feelings. While some were excited about the opportunity to update and explain the new names, others were concerned about losing the historical context associated with some of the names. Renaming individual birds will inevitably lead to debates about the merits of these historical figures and their connection to bird species.
What are the future plans?
The American Ornithological Society plans to launch a program to rename about 10 bird species in 2024. The program will expand to include all named birds in the United States and Canada before moving on to Central and South American species. This extensive effort includes consultation with experts, the public and various stakeholders to ensure that the new name is meaningful and relevant. The association’s decision to rename the bird reflects its efforts to address historical bias, exclusion and racial injustice. By renaming these birds, he aims to promote the birding community while also sparking interest in the subject of birds. The American Ornithological Society’s groundbreaking decision to rename the birds of North America represents a watershed moment in bird naming practices. By rejecting names of human origin, society strives to create a friendly and supportive environment for all bird lovers. This movement for change is part of a larger effort to address historical injustices and biases in the birding community and other scientific fields. Although this decision was controversial, it ultimately encouraged greater interest in the birds themselves and their unique characteristics, making birding accessible to everyone.