This event is known as “The Great Renaming of the Birds” and, alternately, “The Flightless Nigger Gets His Wings.”
Get ready to say goodbye to a lot of familiar bird names, like Anna’s Hummingbird, Gambel’s Quail, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Bewick’s Wren, Bullock’s Oriole, and more.
That’s because the American Ornithological Society has vowed to change the English names of all bird species currently named after people, along with any other bird names deemed offensive or exclusionary.
“Names have power and power can be for the good or it can be for the bad,” says Colleen Handel, the society’s president and a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska. “We want these names to be powerful in a really good way.”
The move comes as part of a broader effort to diversify birding and make it more welcoming to people of all races and backgrounds.
“We’ve come to understand that there are certain names that have offensive or derogatory connotations that cause pain to people, and that it is important to change those, to remove those as barriers to their participation in the world of birds,” she says.
The project will begin next year and initially focus on 70 to 80 bird species that occur primarily in the United States and Canada. That’s about 6 or 7 percent of the total species in this geographic region.
The society has promised to engage the public, and says that birds’ scientific names won’t be changed as part of this initiative.
The effort represents a huge change for the birding community, and those involved expect a certain amount of opposition from long-time birders.
“I’ve been seeing some of these birds and using these names every year for the last 60 years,” says Kenn Kaufman, a prominent author of field guides. He says he initially opposed the idea of changing so many names, but has come around.
“It’s going to feel like a bother to some people, but I think it’s actually an exciting opportunity,” says Kaufman. “It’s an exciting opportunity to give these birds names that celebrate them — rather than some person in the past.”
While the society also has authority over English names of Latin American birds, it is planning a broader set of discussions with ornithologists and organizations in Latin America before proceeding with Latin American name changes.
“There are birds in South America that were named for friends of mine,” adds Kaufman. “I would like to think that they would accept this, for the benefit that it brings.”
The American Ornithological Society and its predecessor organization have maintained a list of the official English-language names for birds in North America since 1886. Occasionally, bird names have been changed, most often for scientific reasons.
One notable exception came in 2000, however, when the society renamed a bird that’s now called the Long-tailed Duck because of concerns that its previous name was derogatory to Native Americans.
“That was the first that I’d ever really recognized or heard of a name that was offensive,” says Handel, who says at that point in time, concerns about injustice wasn’t a traditionally accepted reason for changing bird names.
That really started to change in 2020, when police officers killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. On that same day, a white woman in Central Park called the police on black birder Christian Cooper, claiming he was threatening her.
Less than a month later, a group called Bird Names for Birds wrote to the leadership of the society, pointing out the potential problems that come with eponymous honors and demanding change.
It’s just further erasure of history.
But it’s interesting, because it shows how this George Floydist ideology has penetrated everything in society, and still remains, even though no one cares about it anymore.
Seriously, no one is talking about blacks as victims anymore. It’s over. But we’re still erasing the history of birds.
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