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Bird Names Are A Changin'

American Ornithological Society Decides to Change Birds Named After People

One of the joys of birdwatching is identifying a bird by its name. Being able to say “that’s a Wilson's Warbler” rather than “I saw a tiny yellowish olive bird” is a rewarding part of the educational journey.

Learning bird names may now get much harder – or be easier – based on this past week’s announcement by the organization that give birds their English names. On the first of November, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) made the momentous statement that it will revise the common English names of birds that are currently named after people, known as “eponymous” bird names, and will involve the public in choosing the new names.

“This is an opportunity for a very constructive process to come up what could be the best alternative name rather than a person’s name” argued Peter Alden. Peter is not new to naming birds. As an author he himself has chosen names and participated on several name groups including the International Avian Vernacular Committee in the 1990s. “Originally, when I did my first book on Finding Birds in Western Mexico I had to decide on an English name. Later on, with Finding Birds Around the World I had to decide on the British or American name, or in a few cases, a completely new name.”

According to the AOS statement, the strategy will be rolled out gradually, beginning with a test phase before targeting 70 to 80 bird species found in the United States and Canada. In regions beyond the U.S. and Canada, the AOS plans to collaborate with local ornithological groups, respecting their preferences. Currently, the AOS North American Classification Committee recognizes 152 eponymous species, and the South American Committee recognizes 111, totaling approximately 5.5% of bird species in these areas.

The main motivation behind the AOS's decision to rename these birds is to make the field of ornithology and the hobby of birdwatching more inclusive and welcoming to a broader audience. This decision is supported by several reasons: firstly, certain bird names are considered offensive or non-inclusive due to the historical actions of their namesakes; secondly, reaching a consensus on who is or isn't deserving of this honor has proven to be exceptionally challenging; hence, the AOS believes it is best to move away from individual-based names entirely. Additionally, the AOS suggests that this initiative offers an opportunity to bestow names upon birds that are more descriptive of their appearance, vocalizations, habitats, or specific behaviors.

“It's going to be hard for people to who are used to a certain name for a bird to remember the new name. For example, every time I see a Northern Harrier my mind goes first to its original name, Marsh Hawk, and then is say ‘oh, yeah, now we call it the Northern Harrier’.”

Read About the Project on the American Ornithological Society website.


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