Scientists Are Renaming Dozens Of “Offensive” Bird Names

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The American Ornithological Society (AOS) has embarked on a significant and imaginative endeavor to redefine the common names of bird species found in the United States and Canada. In a transformative move, the AOS has committed to removing human names from the nomenclature of birds. This groundbreaking decision seeks to create a more inclusive environment for bird enthusiasts and ornithologists, transcending historical associations and embracing a newfound appreciation for avian diversity.

The AOS aims to replace human-centric names with descriptive and evocative alternatives that mirror the traits, behaviors, and habitats of the birds. By eliminating human names, the society intends to foster a welcoming atmosphere for individuals from diverse backgrounds who are passionate about bird-watching and ornithology. The initiative, which involves renaming 70 to 80 bird species in the U.S. and Canada, reflects the evolving landscape of conservation, inclusivity, and respect for all.

The decision to redefine bird names comes on the heels of several years of controversy surrounding names linked to individuals with racist and genocidal histories. This move has garnered enthusiastic support from ornithologists and scientists who have advocated for bird names that focus on the birds themselves.

Corina Newsome, an ornithologist who played a pivotal role in launching Black Birders Week in May 2020, expressed her excitement about this change. She noted how species names reflecting the birds’ characteristics are easier to remember and praised the shift toward a more equitable approach to understanding the natural world.

The AOS acknowledges that this renaming project is not solely about addressing past wrongs but also about ensuring that bird names are primarily about the birds, free from any controversial associations. By taking this approach, the society hopes to prevent contentious value judgments regarding the historical figures linked to these names.

The renaming process will prioritize descriptive names that provide insights into the birds’ appearances, behaviors, songs, or habitats. This shift aims to enhance the connection between bird names and the birds themselves, making it easier for enthusiasts to identify and appreciate these magnificent creatures.

Species names considered derogatory or culturally inappropriate will also undergo changes. Among the birds set to receive new names are the flesh-footed shearwater, Eskimo curlew, and Inca dove. These changes reflect a commitment to inclusivity and respect, aligning with the broader goal of making ornithology and bird-watching accessible to all.

The decision to rename bird species emerged from a series of events and evolving perspectives within the ornithological community. In 2018, a proposal to rename McKown’s longspur was rejected, sparking disappointment among birders. However, as 2020 ushered in nationwide protests against racism and a renewed focus on addressing social injustices, the AOS reconsidered its stance. Accepting a rewritten proposal to rename the longspur as the thick-billed longspur marked a turning point.

Kenn Kaufman, a renowned naturalist and author, initially hesitated to support renaming bird species due to concerns about stability and communication within the bird-watching community. However, after witnessing the vocal outcry for change, particularly from younger ornithologists and bird conservationists, Kaufman became convinced that renaming was essential. He recognized that some bird names effectively served as verbal Confederate monuments and barriers to inclusivity.

To facilitate the renaming process, the AOS plans to launch a pilot project in 2024, beginning with an initial group of 70-80 birds in the U.S. and Canada. This project will engage experts in taxonomy, social science, and communication, ensuring a balanced and deliberative approach. The society also intends to involve the public in suggesting new names, fostering enthusiasm for bird conservation and ornithology.

In conclusion, the American Ornithological Society’s commitment to renaming bird species represents a momentous shift toward inclusivity, respect, and a deeper connection with the natural world. By embracing descriptive names and distancing themselves from human associations, the AOS seeks to create a more welcoming environment for all bird enthusiasts. This transformative endeavor reflects a growing awareness of the importance of acknowledging past injustices while promoting a brighter and more inclusive future for ornithology and bird-watching.

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