Changes to Common Bird Names

Earlier this month, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced a plan to change the eponymic bird names, those named after people, in the US and Canada. The announcement comes after years of work by the AOS, holding listening session, meeting with stakeholders, and ultimately deciding that for birding and ornithology to be more inclusive and culturally sensitive, removing eponyms would be necessary. The organization has made three commitments:

  1. Change the names of birds named directly after people, and other offensive names.

Bird names change all the time, with most AOS decisions coming from taxonomic revisions (did you know Northern Goshawk is now called American Goshawk because of a species split this year?) but also for cultural reasons (e.g., the former common name of Long-tailed Duck was ageist, racist, and sexist all in one). The AOS decided to change all eponyms, rather than review them on a case-by-case basis, to avoid the conundrum of making value judgements and the inevitable debates that would ensue. Changing all eponyms (only ~5% of birds in the US and Canada; 14 regularly occurring in Maine) to names that actually describe the bird, or some aspects of its life or natural history, will be a positive shift.

  1. Establish a committee to oversee assignment of common names.

It is important to acknowledge, especially for people asking “is this worth doing?” that this is exactly what the North American Classification Committee (NACC) of the AOS does: their mission is to “evaluate and codify the latest scientific developments in the systematics, nomenclature, and distribution of North and Middle American birds.” While past committees were primarily represented by taxonomists, a new goal will be to pick names that are more engaging and informative for the people that actually use them: us!

  1. Involve the public in the process of selecting new names.

At Maine Audubon, we are excited by the opportunity that this presents. We are always looking for ways to connect people with nature, and the AOS giving the public as voice in this process will give us all a vested interest in these birds and hopefully generate more interest in birding and conservation.

This is just a quick summary; for more background, I recommend visiting the AOS’s page on the English Bird Names Project and especially reading the full report.

Advocacy and Outreach Manager Nick Lund and I will be hosting a free webinar on December 14 at 6 pm to talk about the AOS commitments, our takes on what makes a good name, and our suggestions for new names. Register here >

Pictured above: Swainson’s Thrush