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Written by Anna Morris, Lead Environmental Educator
The diversity of human languages allows us to communicate with one another easily, across geographic regions and even across time, despite the fact that languages, and our names for things, change. Biologists, in order to communicate with one another internationally, use “scientific names”, often in Latin, to distinguish between species of plants and animals. However, “common names” help us communicate with our neighbors about the flowers and birds in our yards. For birds especially, common names are widely written, read, spoken, and even exclaimed by excited birders.
Some birds’ common names come from what they look like (Black-capped Chickadee, Rough-legged Hawk).
What they do (Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Downy Woodpecker).
Where they live (Marsh Wren, Field Sparrow).
Or what they sound like (Red-eyed Vireo, Mourning Dove).
However, some birds are named after the person who first described them to western science. There are some familiar examples in Vermont (Cooper’s Hawk, Wilson’s Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush) and another 138 across North America.
The North American Classification Committee (NACC), a part of the American Ornithological Society, periodically makes changes to or updates these common names, to communicate new scientific understanding. This summer, they’ve begun considering changing the names of the birds that are named after people to communicate new cultural understanding.
Proponents of the “Bird Names for Birds” initiative have recommended removing all “honorifics” from bird common names. This summer, the NACC agreed to a proposal to rename McCown’s Longspur, a bird named after Confederate officer Joseph McCown, to the Thick-billed Longspur. This move was not unprecedented. Several years ago, the Long-tailed Duck’s name was changed from a Native American racial slur, “Oldsquaw”, and Sweden began renaming birds with racist common names in 2015.
Some argue that if some honorifics are to be changed, mustn’t they all be changed? The NACC says that not only would changing all honorifics be logistically difficult, they “recognize the ornithological contributions of important figures of the past” and “are reminders that ornithology has an important history and that we are not independent of that history.”
But what if they could all be changed to more descriptive names? Honorifics reflect little about the biology of a bird, and “the vast majority of eponymous common names were applied to birds by European and American naturalists…” not reflective or representative of the diverse communities that enjoy birds today. Alexander Wilson, the Scottish ornithologist for whom the Wilson’s Warbler and four other species are named, himself favored descriptive names for species and would likely not be pleased with the honorifics his subjects have been given.
As environmental educators at VINS, the way we communicate about the natural world is forefront in our minds. We always want to provide accurate, interesting information, and we want to be inclusive of all learners. By changing the honorific common names of birds to more descriptive names, we communicate to our fellow learners that the appreciation of birds and nature is not exclusive to one group of people, but accessible and easy to dive into. As the mission statement for Bird Names For Birds states, “Birds should carry their own history, not ours.”
We would like to hear what you think about this shift in bird nomenclature. Please leave your comments below.
As someone casually trying to learn birds, the idea of learning new names for birds I’ve started to know is a step backwards and discouraging. However, giving them common names with descriptive features or habitats would give more context and make learning could make learning easier. This could also link important birds with the habitats that support them, thereby drawing attention to those vital habitats and their ecological function. So, I support changing the names.
Which leads to the question, “Should scientific names be changed for the same reason?”
Interesting, informative, and beautifully written.
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