Opinion: Bird names shouldn’t honor bigots and enslavers — or anyone

File photo/Donna Dewhurst/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via The New York Times / A Wilson's Warbler is perched on a branch in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2008. The American Ornithological Society, the organization responsible for standardizing English bird names across the Americas, announced on Nov. 1, 2023, that it would rename all species honoring people.
File photo/Donna Dewhurst/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via The New York Times / A Wilson's Warbler is perched on a branch in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2008. The American Ornithological Society, the organization responsible for standardizing English bird names across the Americas, announced on Nov. 1, 2023, that it would rename all species honoring people.

The American Ornithological Society's announcement earlier this month that it will end the naming of bird species after people is a decision of refreshing clarity. Because after two years of deliberation, the group that manages the official list of English-language bird names in the Americas came to the realization that instead of changing common bird names deemed offensive or exclusionary on a case-by-case basis, it needed to reframe the issue entirely.

So the group decided it would change the names of all 260 birds in its jurisdiction that are named after people, and three that have "derogatory or culturally unsuitable references or origins." The effort to right past wrongs and make the world of birding more inclusive will affect about 5.5% of bird names the group oversees. The process will begin next year, focusing on about 80 species found in the United States and Canada as the first of four phases.

Not only are these eponyms and honorifics nonsensical — the naturalists who named them after their contemporaries did not "discover" them any more than Columbus discovered the Americas. They are also alienating, part of an antiquated and repugnant landscape of animal, plant and place names that exclude and demean Indigenous communities and people of color.

Birds don't belong to anyone, after all. Indigenous people in the Americas knew and named them centuries before white settlers arrived, and preserving the naming conventions from the 1800s only perpetuates a culture of exclusion and white supremacy.

There's something especially abhorrent about naming plant and animal species after people who not only held racist views, but committed despicable acts. Townsend's warbler, Townsend's Big-eared Bat and Townsend's Chipmunk, for example, are among the creatures whose names honor a 19th century ornithologist who dug up the graves of Indigenous people and decapitated their skulls to try to prove their racial inferiority, calling them "savages little better than brute beasts."

It's not just living things that have objectionable names. The U.S. is still dotted with towns, mountains, lakes, public buildings and monuments that bear the names of racists, colonizers and enslavers, or slurs against Black and Indigenous people. Though there's sometimes a confounding level of resistance to changing them, it is slowly happening. These are steps in the right direction.

But it's important to note that the American Ornithological Society's new approach to naming didn't come without resistance from those who would prefer to keep things as they were. The change was championed by activists with the Bird Names for Birds campaign that was launched in June 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the incident the same day in New York's Central Park where a white woman called 911 on Black birder Christian Cooper.

Those events ignited a reckoning over the many ways people of color have been excluded and harassed. But the same issues apply to the outdoors writ large, where communities of color still suffer from exclusion and a lack of belonging in spaces that white people have long enjoyed without question.

Building support for avian conservation among all communities is especially important at a time when 1 in 4 birds in North America have disappeared over the last 50 years as humans alter their habitat through environmental destruction and climate change.

Building a culture of inclusion isn't as easy as removing problematic names, but changing the language we use is a decent way to start.

The Los Angeles Times

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