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Toward Inclusivity in Birding: Forum Discusses Renaming Eponymous Birds

By Gustave Axelson
Bachman's Sparrow by Pawel Michalak/Macaulay Library.
The Bachman’s Sparrow was once called the Pine-woods Sparrow, and may be again. Photo by Pawel Michalak/Macaulay Library.

From the Summer 2021 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

On the vexing issue of birds named after people in history, the esteemed Kenn Kaufman—author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America—broke it down with an example of birding with Black friends in Georgia.

“[If] we see a Bachman’s Sparrow, we’re all aware of the fact that John Bachman wrote some really ugly things in support of white supremacy,” Kaufman said. “That bird used to be called Pine-woods Sparrow … Why not just change it back?”

Kaufman was speaking at a virtual panel discussion on April 16 about the prospect of changing eponymous common names for birds (or birds named after people). The Community Congress on English Bird Names was hosted by the American Ornithological Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee via Zoom, and attracted nearly 600 viewers. The unanimous sentiment among the 15-person panel—which featured birders, scientists, field guide authors, and other experts from the U.S. and Canada—was that changes need to be made among more than 100 eponymous bird names for North American species to make birding more welcoming and inclusive to all.

But how much change, and how fast? As some scientists on the panel cautioned, any name changes need to be conducted in an orderly manner to avoid impacts to science and conservation. Put simply, the landmark Science research showing that North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970 wouldn’t have been possible if all the data sources couldn’t rely on a unified, comparable set of bird names.

Watch a recording of the Community Congress on English Bird Names, organized by the American Ornithological Society Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

One bird’s name change in the summer of 2020 perhaps paved the way for balancing inclusivity and order, when the AOS North American Classification Committee announced that the former McCown’s Longspur would henceforth be known as the Thick-billed Longspur. John McCown first collected the species for science in 1851, but later chose to join the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The change was made after birders campaigned to remove McCown’s name from the bird, and after the classification committee revised its guidelines for bird names—adding considerations for “present-day ethical principles” when considering changing English common bird names that create “ongoing harm.”

The longspur’s renaming kicked off a larger dialogue within the birding community about changing other eponymous bird names with ties to racism. A grassroots movement called Bird Names for Birds formed to push the issue even farther, calling for changing all eponymous bird names. Jordan Rutter, one of the group’s founders, also spoke at the panel event.

“Eponymous names don’t reflect the welcoming and inclusive community we know birding can be,” Rutter said. She said that she believes the current system for determining common bird names reflects colonialism in ornithological history. Nearly every North American bird name tied to a person can be traced back to a white American or European naturalist.

“Every eponymous common name needs to go,” Rutter said. “We know that won’t happen quickly. And to be done right, it shouldn’t happen quickly … but it needs to happen.”

Rutter said she thinks a process for changing eponymous bird names could be a rallying moment for birders: “We have an incredible opportunity ahead of us that could truly unite every bird community member. … What if we could inspire the next generation and create a ripple effect of people who care about birds?”

Williamson's Sapsucker by Pierre Deviche/Macaulay Library.
During the panel discussion, there was broad consensus that bird names should be changed to remove eponyms. Someday soon, the Williamson's Sapsucker may be known by a different name, perhaps the "Montane" Sapsucker, as panelist Kenn Kaufman suggested. Photo by Pierre Deviche/Macaulay Library.

Marshall Iliff, a project leader with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database, which contains millions of birder checklists for 10,518 species worldwide, acknowledged the impact that Bird Names for Birds has already had.

“Eponyms are part of every bird name discussion going on these days,” said Iliff. “I see that as a testament to how strongly those arguments have resonated.”

Iliff went on to speak about the need to move deliberately and constructively in changing bird names, and including an array of voices: “It’s really, really important that changes are made along a broad coalition and consensus within the Americas and beyond. … In the end, we really hope to see true global agreement on the names and taxonomy for all species of birds, so that field guides, national and international databases, and names used by scientists and recreational birders worldwide are consistent.”

David Sibley joined Kaufman on the panel as another author of a best-selling field guide series. And according to Sibley—who credited the Bird Names for Birds movement as opening his eyes to the issue—eponymous names aren’t just a barrier to making birding more inclusive. They’re a barrier to the free flow of information.

“As I’ve learned more about eponymous bird names over the last year, it’s become clear that these names carry a lot of baggage,” Sibley said. “If we cringe a little bit when we say or hear a bird’s name, that’s a barrier to communication. … It’s different from the free and uncomplicated flow of information that we can have when we talk about the Surf Scoter, or Warbling Vireo or Yellow Warbler.”

Sibley said that implementing a raft of name changes in field guides and other birding references will require a lot of time and adjustment, but it’s eminently doable: “The hardest part will probably be convincing the birding community that this is worth the trouble. Education will be key to that. It’s a small step in the big landscape of racial and social injustice, but I think it’s important and definitely worth doing.”

Yousif Attia, a citizen science coordinator at Bird Studies Canada, called for a process of reconsidering eponymous birds names that includes “diverse stakeholders informed on inclusion and equity, in addition to taxonomy and life history birds.” Many of the panelists spoke about a golden opportunity to broaden the base of popular support for birds, which could ultimately benefit the birds themselves.

“Birding and ornithology … needs to expand beyond our current audience,” said Geoff LeBaron, who manages the Christmas Bird Count database for Audubon. “The future of conservation really depends on engaging other audiences.”

With 3 billion birds lost and more advocates for birds needed, a broad initiative to rename hundreds of birds could “engage a massive and diverse community of enthusiasts,” said eBird’s Iliff. He spoke of the chance to “dig into the essence of each species, to appreciate it even more deeply and define inspired and appropriate names.”

In nodding back to Kaufman’s comments about discomfort with the name Bachman’s Sparrow, and Rutter’s comments about renaming being a chance to rally birders, Iliff asked people to imagine “the notion of a campaign for Pine-woods Sparrow and getting everyone excited about that bird.”

Getting people excited about birds should be the foremost conservation priority, said American Birding Association President Jeff Gordon.

“The biggest threat birds face isn’t glass collisions or outdoor cats or even global warming, as dire as those threats are,” said Gordon. “It’s being ignored to death. Not enough people know, and not enough people care.”

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library