Bird Names for the 21st Century

by Ashwin Sivakumar

This speciality of North American grasslands, known to science as Rhyncophanes mccownii, was until recently named “McCown’s Longspur” in most field guides and other bird books. The species is now the “Thick-billed Longspur,” due in part to recent revelations regarding the pro-slavery sentiments of its namesake, a Capt. John P. McCown (1815-1879). Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

Changing the vernacular name of R. mccownii was a relatively straightforward matter, all things considered: The species is range-restricted and little known, and birders had practically no stake in the legacy of Capt. McCown. But what about the much bigger problem of the proliferation of honorific, or patronymic, names on the ABA Checklist? Should all those names–some of them referring to widespread and familiar species commemorating significant historical figures–likewise be scrapped? This commentary addresses that question, and proposes a way forward.

Mornings in the Pacific Northwest start quietly. The birds are there—soft chirps emanate from every bush, and the whistled cry of a Varied Thrush or the sweet song of a White-crowned Sparrow is audible nearby. The silence rarely lasts. The cry that shatters the peace comes in many forms: sometimes a piercing scream, other times an anxious high-pitched whistle, but most often, a hoarse, attention-drawing chatter. And what a sight when the perpetrator hops into view! A stern-looking medium-sized bird sporting an ostentatious black headdress, cerulean eyebrows, and an underside washed in cobalt–blue.

Growing up in Portland, it seems I’ve heard almost as many names used by the locals for this bird as I’ve seen individuals of the species! A few, however, occur with regularity: “blue bird,” “blue jay,” “pine jay,” “crested jay”—all derived from its easily observed characteristics. But when I tell people its “real” name, they are often surprised. Is the most noteworthy thing about this bird the fact that Georg Wilhelm Stöller, an undoubtedly admirable 18th-century German naturalist, saw one during a stop at an Alaskan island?

For most of ornithological history in the West, the sentiment that a bird’s characteristics should speak for themselves rather than defining it as the possession of a human, no matter how great, has resided solely in the philosophical realm. Over the past few months, however, America has gone through a great reckoning, wherein the systemic, cultural, and historical underpinnings of our society have come under much-deserved scrutiny for their brutal impact on our most marginalized members.

The birding and ornithological communities have, for their part, started to grapple with the reality that many people honored in bird names were active participants in ignoble causes. John Kirk Townsend, a 19th-century naturalist honored in the name of a solitaire, a warbler, and a storm-petrel, robbed Indigenous persons’ graves to supply skulls to his friend Samuel George Morton, who used them to write his magnum opus Crania Americana, one of the most influential texts in the development of scientific racism in America. The Reverend John Bachman, enshrined in the name of a warbler and a sparrow, was not only a slave owner, but also coopted scientific and religious rhetoric to write a lengthy defense of the institution of slavery. And John Porter McCown, until very recently commemorated in the name of a longspur, was a general in the Confederate Army.

Myadestes townsendi is called the “Townsend’s Solitaire” by the AOS. The species is named for John Kirk Townsend (1809–1851), a complicated figure with conflicting impulses regarding slavery and Indigenous peoples. There are multiple solitaire species, and the modifier “Townsend’s” conveys no information about the biology of M. townsendi; would the name “Northern Solitaire” be an improvement? Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

Not all were this vile. Isaac Sprague, a 19th-century naturalist who lent his name to a pipit, took issue with Audubon’s insistence on shooting wildlife and seemed to harbor positive attitudes toward Indigenous Americans. The aforementioned Stöller, who later became Steller, was outspoken in his devotion to the peoples of the Russian Far East and present-day Alaska. And even Townsend, from an abolitionist Quaker family, presents challenges of interpretation. Nevertheless, many prominent naturalists of yesteryear willingly contributed in some form to the institutions now being correctly recognized as oppressive. What was until recently a fairly marginal position has now entered mainstream discourse: As of Aug. 2020, over 2,000 people have signed the #BirdNamesForBirds online petition, calling for the North American Classification Committee (NACC) of the American Ornithological Society (AOS) to scrap the avian lexicon of honorific names entirely.

While #BirdNamesForBirds is a recent phenomenon, serious efforts to drop honorifics go back a bit further. In 2018, Robert Driver, a graduate student at East Carolina University, submitted a controversial proposal to the NACC to rename the McCown’s Longspur due to the Confederate connections of the dainty bird’s eponym. Although supported by birders and ornithologists, the proposal was roundly criticized by those who saw it as a needless change predicated solely on political correctness, and was rejected by a 1–7 margin, with one abstention, by the NACC. This decision has since been overturned (more on that later). One might be excused for thinking the NACC has traditionally been unwilling to change names except when absolutely necessary, such as when species are split. However, in 2018, the common name for Perisoreus canadensis was changed from the Gray Jay to the Canada Jay by a 9–1 margin, based in part on the rationale that the bird was, prior to 1957, known as the Canada Jay, and that the raison d’être for the “Gray Jay” name had disappeared.

More relevant to the current debate, in 2000, biologists from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service successfully petitioned the NACC to change the name of Clangula hyemalis from the politically incorrect “Oldsquaw” to “Long-tailed Duck” because they were concerned that the name Oldsquaw was offensive to Indigenous Americans integral to the conservation of the declining species. What was the key difference between the duck and the longspur proposals that caused one to pass and the other to flounder?

The answer: an esoteric imperative that silently looms in the background of every NACC decision: “nomenclatural stability.” With binomial scientific names, this concept is easy to understand: Don’t change names unless absolutely necessary. Ornithologists, however, stand out in the biological sciences for maintaining a standardized list not only of scientific names, but also English common names. It is for the latter that nomenclatural stability becomes both extremely difficult to explain and even more difficult to implement consistently.

ABA Area birders know this big green hummingbird from woodlands in Arizona and New Mexico. They also knew it, until a recent taxonomic split, as the “Magnificent Hummingbird.” Now the northern species, the one that ranges into the U. S., is known as the “Rivoli’s Hummingbird,” commemorating one François Victor Masséna (1799–1863), the second Duke of Rivoli and third Prince of Essling. It is difficult to imagine a more unhelpful name for the species! Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

Consider the case of the Magnificent Hummingbird. Before 2017, it was considered a single species with the scientific name Eugenes fulgens. When the widespread northern subspecies was split from the localized southern one, the former retained the name E. fulgens, while the southern was given a new name, E. spectabilis. This made sense, preserving the old name for the more widespread species minimized nomenclatural confusion. However, this same standard was not applied to the new common names: instead of retaining “Magnificent Hummingbird” for the northern species, it was renamed “Rivoli’s Hummingbird.” Granted, there is a rationale behind this action: Before 1982 when the two species were lumped into Magnificent Hummingbird, the northern species was referred to as Rivoli’s. But it is undeniable that by keeping “Magnificent” for the northern subspecies, the NACC would have reduced nomenclatural confusion in field guides, checklists, and more. The application of nomenclatural stability to common names has been imprecise at best, and more of a general philosophy rather than a strict rule.

How did nomenclatural stability operate in the cases of the duck and the longspur? For the former, the NACC explicitly stated that it was amenable to the change, not due to political correctness, but instead because “Long-tailed Duck” was a well-established alternative English name used in other parts of the world, and therefore increased overall nomenclatural stability. However, the longspur proposal did not offer a specific alternative name, creating the perception that a change would cause nomenclatural instability. In the words of one ornithologist on the committee, “As a committee focused on taxonomy and nomenclature, we should strive for stability in names unless there is a strongly compelling reason to change them.” At that point in time, evidently, decommemorating a Confederate general didn’t make the cut.

In many instances, ABA Area birds are named after relatively minor figures—a fair number of whom spent little if any time in the present- day U. S. and Canada. Not so in the case of the Wilson’s Snipe, named for Alexander Wilson (1766–1813). Wilson is acclaimed by many as “The Father of American Ornithology.” A refugee from Scotland, Wilson became an enthusiastic American. Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

Given the use of stability by NACC members to quash renaming proposals, it is all too easy for those of us passionate about inclusivity to decry the concept in English nomenclature as nothing more than a useless, inconsistently applied stumbling block. While this may be true about the most literal interpretation of nomenclatural stability, dismissing the concept entirely would be a mistake. In its most distilled form, nomenclatural stability aims to change names in the way that would generate the least confusion and facilitate the most understanding among birders, ornithologists, and laypeople. So let us apply that broader conception—one that takes into account not only stability across subsequent editions of the AOS Checklist, but also for everyone who uses bird names, birders and nonbirders alike, over both geography and time. In this way, the undertaking becomes absolutely essential if we wish to avoid engendering endless confusion with our renaming efforts. How, then, can we reconcile stability with the massive nomenclatural upheaval that #BirdNamesForBirds activists call for?

To answer this question, let us allow ourselves to briefly be discouraged by the words of one of the preeminent field ornithologists of the early 20th century, Ludlow Griscom. In 1947, Griscom published “Common Sense in Common Names,” a witty and erudite repudiation of the standardization of English common names for birds. Noting that birds’ “habits and habitats change from season to season, from one section of the continent to another, from century to century,” Griscom inquires, “Which season, which habitat, which section of the country is to be the basis for the ‘appropriate or associative’ name?”

In Aug. 2020, some 73 years later, I received a preprint of a paper by ornithologist Kevin Winker, who, after extensively analyzing the history of English common names, shares Griscom’s sentiment. “We are fully aware that it is impossible to achieve universal agreement on the best choices for English names,” Winker notes. As a result of the variability in avian natural history that Griscom admitted, and the consequent lack of consensus acknowledged by Winker, most bird species have a plethora of linguistic traditions surrounding them: the ornithological lexicon, and the vernacular of birders and non-birders, and the names given by Indigenous persons and European interlopers alike.

Four species of scrub-jays are currently recognized by the AOS. This one represents a distinctive suite of characters: plumage, calls, habitat, dispersal, range, geographic variation, etc. In honor of Samuel Washington Woodhouse (1821–1904), it is called “Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay,” a name that seems wanting. What principal or principles might guide the selection of a new vernacular name (or names, plural) for the species? Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

Any search for a single standardized common name is destined to be confounded by this complex linguistic landscape. But Griscom’s observation implies something promising: In our quest to replace honorifics, there exists a vast array of common names that are already well-attested. Officially acknowledging them would bolster understanding and communication among ornithologists, birders, and nonbirders alike.

Consider Parabuteo unicinctus, the pack-hunting hawk of the mesquite washes of the southwestern ABA Area and the South American scrub. The brilliant rufous swath on this fearsome bird’s wing must have had a profound impact on many an ornithologist, for while its official name pays tribute to Edward Harris, a horse breeder and companion of Audubon, many throughout the past half-century have focused instead on its unique, majestic coloration. The ornithological literature—from The Auk and The Condor, the AOS’ own journals; to Emmett Reid Blake’s incomplete yet highly influential 1977 Manual of Neotropical Birds, cited by nearly 600 authors; to a study published in BioScience in 2003 on interspecific interactions in the Chilean scrubland, cited by another 300—is rife with the name “Bay-winged Hawk” instead of the contrived honorific. For Parabuteo unicinctus and many other species, synonymous English names are pervasive in the ornithological literature, yet have been largely unrecognized by ornithological authorities.

The so-called “standard English names” of five bird species in the ABA Area commemorate John Cassin (1813–1869): Cassin’s Auklet, Cassin’s Kingbird, Cassin’s Vireo, Cassin’s Sparrow, and the one depicted here, Cassin’s Finch. Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

On warm summer evenings, a skulking songster of the northern and western woods entrances millions of people with its spiraling aria. The most distinctive feature of the thrush named for early 19th-century polymath William John Swainson, however, is not its song; after all, most of our thrush species put on beautiful performances of their own. Rather, what truly sets this bird apart is on full display during an early morning visit to the same woodland that served as a concert hall the night before. The slender, medium-length brown bird that sang so proficiently sallies forth from the canopy, stalling briefly in the air each time to pick off some unlucky insect, often a mosquito. This flycatching habit is common knowledge not only to birders of these woods, but also to those who lived and worked there through the ages—communities of lumberjacks, farmers, and Indigenous peoples of myriad occupations. How do we know? In Arthur Cleveland Bent’s 1949 life history of the thrush, he quotes fellow ornithologist Ora Knight as noting that “locally applied names of Northern Maine are Mosquito Thrush and Flycatching Thrush.” These names exist because common people have found these behavioral traits memorable enough over long periods of time, ascribed names based on them, and have used them to such an extent that the names have become regular across the community.

For Cathartes ustulatus and many other “familiar” birds, a plethora of vernacular names exist that would be just as useful as the official name to foster communication about the species, yet are largely unrecognized at present by birding and ornithological authorities.

The Cooper’s Hawk has evoked every manner of response from human observers: awe, dread, hatred, sympathy, and more. The species is in the process of rapid behavioral evolution coupled with an impressive population increase. In other words, there’s a lot to say about this species! In the meantime, do you know whom the species is named for? There were multiple ornithological Coopers in the 19th century, and it is inconceivable that even 1% of American birders, knowledgeable though they may be in so many matters, know the difference. Photo by © Greg Neise.

Suppose you are birding Mexico’s breathtaking Sierra Madre Occidental in midwinter. You spot a lithe, ashy songbird, and despite your inexperience with Mexican birds, you recognize it immediately from back home: Myadestes townsendi. You soon encounter a local, who asks you in Spanish what you were observing. Simply saying solitario isn’t enough, as two solitaire species inhabit this mountain range. Quoting the scientific name is likely to elicit a blank stare. You could say you saw a solitario de Townsend, but you are likely to be met again with confusion. There is another possibility. The local could ask you whether the bird was a solitario norteño, a “Northern Solitaire.” You immediately respond in the affirmative. The name tells you exactly what it is: the solitaire species found farther north than any other. It’s all too easy for Anglophone birders to forget that other North American languages—Spanish, French, or Indigenous— have their own names for our birds, which, when translated into English, often offer superior avenues of communication within and between languages than our own English standard names.

Acknowledging alternative common names for birds is paramount to furthering the core idea behind nomenclatural stability. Acknowledging “Bay-winged Hawk” would make existing literature more comprehensible to students of ornithology. Acknowledging “Mosquito Thrush” or “Flycatching Thrush” would foster understanding between birders and nonbirders. Acknowledging “Northern Solitaire” would, perhaps, allow conservationists to more easily communicate with residents of locations where habitat loss is occurring with disturbing speed. However, we must not squander our chance to make birding more inclusive by simply pushing for a onefor-one replacement of existing honorifics with an alternative name. No, Ludlow Griscom saw the folly in that. Scientific names exist for that purpose, and any attempt to prescribe a single common English name for a bird will, counterintuitively, just cause confusion and hinder the goal of nomenclatural stability.

Most often, an eponymous bird name is conferred by somebody other than the honoree. Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823–1887) didn’t name this dainty sparrow of the middle longitudes of North America. Rather, it was John James Audubon (1785–1851) who called it bairdii, whence the standard English name “Baird’s.” Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

Honorifics, “Nomenclatural Stability,” and a False Dichotomy

Many birders and ornithologists are understandably skeptical of Griscom’s proposal to drop official English common names for birds entirely, and for good reason. Consider the following three deer species: Alces alces, Cervus canadensis, and C. elaphus. In North America, A. alces is known as “moose,” whereas C. canadensis is known as “elk.” Confusingly, however, in Europe, A. alces is known as “elk,” and C. elaphus, closely related and until recently conspecific with C. canadensis, is known as “red deer.” In an attempt to alleviate this confusion, some, especially in Asia, refer to C. canadensis as “wapiti,” but this has not been widely adopted in North America, despite having its origin in the Cree and Shawnee languages. Presumably, some degree of official documentation and recommendation of certain common names is necessary to avoid similar nomenclatural fiascos for birds. To reconcile stability with the #BirdNamesForBirds initiative, I believe we must reject the nomenclatural glossaries that are the ABA and AOS checklists, and replace them with an ornithological thesaurus. Why, when multiple common names exist for many birds, must we legitimize only one? Why should Pseudonestor xanthophrys go solely by Maui Parrotbill, when Kiwikiu is the name most used by Hawaiians? Why leave out Ocotero, when this is what Peucedramus taeniatus is called throughout most of its range?

Things get murky at the subspecific level. The nominate subspecies, hutchinsii, of the Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii, was described by John Richardson (1787–1865) in 1832, and the bird is known today as “Richardson’s” Cackling Goose. It’s a curious bit of ornithological history. Does it really belong in this bird’s name? Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

The thesaurus would contain one standardized scientific name for every species and a list of synonymous common names for each scientific name. To make it on the list, a name would have to be well-documented or well-established in the ornithological literature, the vernacular, or in another language spoken in North America. Honorifics and pejorative names would be phased out over time. Their removal may impact short-term nomenclatural stability, but would be compensated for by the acknowledgement of various alternative common names.

An ornithological thesaurus would have two crucial advantages. The alternative, vernacular, and translated names would bolster communication and understanding among various stakeholders, as we’ve seen with the hawk, the thrush, and the solitaire. And the goals of the #BirdNamesForBirds initiative would be resolved by acknowledging all the established alternative names in lieu of the honorific.

In Aug. 2020, the AOS, to its credit, acknowledged the shifting tide of public opinion by changing the name of McCown’s Longspur, but with one crucial problem. The single, newly coined name—Thick-billed Longspur—has absolutely no precedent in the ornithological literature, in the vernacular, or as a translation from another language. Previously, the renowned ornithologist Elliott Coues had in 1903 given it two different names in his Key to North American Birds: “Bay-winged Longspur” and “Black-breasted Longspur.” The former, in particular, had gained general acceptance among birders as the clearest potential replacement for the honorific. Alas, adopting an unprecedented name amplifies the immediate confusion surrounding the change and engenders hostility to the #BirdNamesForBirds movement. This folly would be easily rectified, however, by an ornithological thesaurus. Include all the names commonly used—Bay-winged, Black-breasted, and, yes, Thick-billed—and phase out McCown’s over time. Confusion and hostility are minimized, understanding maximized. To make our community as inclusive as possible to people, we must ensure that our lexicon is as inclusive as possible to names. Inclusivity begets inclusivity—a gift that keeps on giving.

Whose right is it to name birds anyhow? This is a “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk, christened harlani by Audubon, in honor of his colleague Richard Harlan (1796– 1843). Audubon called the bird the Black Warrior, a name equal parts fraught and evocative. Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

One thing is certain. With articles in mainstream media outlets, including Scientific American and The Washington Post, enumerating its goals, the #BirdNamesForBirds movement is here to stay. Sooner or later, every honorific bird name will face the chopping block. Those boisterous blue birds that bring energy to the quietest of Northwest mornings will have a chance to adopt a new title. Why only one? Ornithologists and Hispanophones across the continent have long known it as the Long-crested Jay or the roughly equivalent Chara Copetana, respectively, while Portland suburbanites and Idaho ranchers alike may be partial to Mountain Jay and Pine Jay, two well-established vernacular monikers across the West. Confucius is attributed with the well-known quip, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” He had the “proper” part right, but perhaps should have considered the plural form of “name.” For those of us who love and hate this remarkable silence-shatterer, adopting any of these names—or all of them—might help us appreciate and value its presence just a little more.

This stunning sparrow is the only bird species whose breeding range falls entirely within Canada. Would that bit of geopolitical biogeography be worth commemorating in the bird’s name? Or should we stick with the name that commemorates one Edward Harris (1799–1863), a horse breeder and buddy of Audubon? Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

Bibliography

American Ornithological Society [AOS]. 2020. 2020 Proposals. American Ornithological Society, Washington.

American Ornithological Society [AOS]. 2020. Proposals 2018-B. American Ornithological Society, Washington.

American Ornithological Society [AOS]. 2020. Proposals 2019-A. American Ornithological Society, Washington.

Banks, R. C, C. Cicero, J. L Dunn, A. W. Kratter, H, Ouellet, P. C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen, J. A. Rising, and D. F. Stotz. 2000. Forty-second supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds (tinyurl.com/AOU42-suppl). Auk 117: 847–858.

Bent, A. C. Life Histories of North American Thrushes, Kinglets, and Their Allies: Order Passeriformes. 1949. U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington.

Blake, E. R. 1977. Manual of Neotropical Birds, vol. 1, 1st ed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Campbell, V. 2018. The people behind the birds named for people: Georg Wilhelm Steller (tinyurl.com/Steller-Cornell), in: All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca.

Coues, E. 1903. Key to North American Birds: Containing a Concise Account of Every Species of Living and Fossil Bird at Present Known from the Continent North of the Mexican and United States Boundary, Inclusive of Greenland and Lower California. Dana Estes, Boston.

Driver, R. 2018. Change the English name of McCown’s Longspur Rhynchophanes mccownii, in: AOS Classification Committee–North and Middle America Proposal Set 2019-A. American Ornithological Society, Washington.

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McLaughlin, J. F. 2020. Sprague, Isaac (tinyurl.com/BN4B-Sprague), in: Bird Names For Birds.

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Morton, G. S. 1819–1850. Samuel George Morton papers, in: American Philosophical Society Library. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. (tinyurl.com/ George-Samuel-Morton).

Orians, G. H., and D. R. Paulson. 1969. Notes on Costa Rican birds. Condor 71: 426–431 (tinyurl.com/Orians-Paulson).

Townsend, J. K. 1839. Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains, to the Columbia River, and a Visit to the Sandwich Islands, Chili, etc., with a Scientific Appendix. Henry Perkins, Philadelphia.

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A central argument against renaming birds is stability. The idea is that tremendous mayhem would result from renaming, say, the Ross’s Goose. Yet bird lovers in the ABA Area have adapted remarkably well to so much change in the first two decades of the millennium: new field marks, emerging technologies, massive revisions in linear sequence, shifting birder demo- graphics, and more. Against all THAT, it seems unlikely birders would lose much sleep over the loss of legacy for the impressively obscure Bernard R. Ross (1827–1874). Photo by © Bill Schmoker.

This article first appeared in Birding magazine, November 2020 >>

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Ashwin Sivakumar is a student researcher broadly interested in ecology and evolutionary biology, especially of birds. Particular interests of his include the genetic architecture of complex traits, behavioral evolution, animal migration and navigation, and paleoecology. He is also an advocate for conservation and has spent the past several years focused on campaigning for habitat restoration in urban areas through native landscaping.

Ashwin wrote this article for Birding when he was a high school student and an active participant in the ABA’s Young Birder Mentoring Program. He is currently a sophomore at Harvard University and a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee of the American Ornithological Society.