A Cooper’s hawk, left, and a Lincoln’s sparrow sit on their perches. There is a movement for all proper names to be removed from bird names. Photos by Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel, and Tribune News Service

The American Ornithological Society has a committee of taxonomic experts who maintain the checklist of North American birds. Birding organizations, publishers of field guides and the birding community, in general, follow this checklist.

The committee is responsible for evaluating records that will add new species to the checklist, considers evidence for splitting an existing species into two or more new species as well as evidence for combining existing species into a single species. The committee also maintains a list of standardized common names for North American birds. These standardized names are appreciated by most birders. It’s a lot easier to call the bird you saw a blue jay rather than Cyanocitta cristata.

The common names are often based on the Latin or Greek scientific names of birds. For instance, the scientific name of the white-throated sparrow is Zonotrichia albicollis and albicollis means white throat. Taxonomists often name new species after colleagues or friends. So Accipiter cooperi is the Cooper’s hawk and Melospiza lincolnii is Lincoln’s sparrow.

The checklist committee issues a supplement to the checklist every July, detailing any changes to the list. The committee just issued an addendum to the 2020 supplement. It has a single item, changing a common name, but this decision has much broader repercussions.

We have four longspur species in North America. The change affects a western species Rhyncophanes mccownii whose common name is changed from McCown’s longspur to thick-billed longspur. The name was changed because of the increased efforts of the American Ornithological Society to heighten awareness of racial issues and the widespread retirement of Confederate symbols.

George Lawrence described the species in 1851 and named it after John P. McCown who collected the first specimen of the species. However, McCown subsequently had a leadership role in the Confederacy and fought in the Civil War. Beginning in 2018, a movement to remove McCown’s name from the common name of this species was started. The decision by the checklist committee was driven, in part, by George Floyd’s death, and Black Birders Week, itself a response to the Central Park birding incident involving Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper last May.

This name change is not the first to address sexist and racist implications of a common name. Responding to a petition in 2000, the committee decided to opt for the name long-tailed duck. The bird had been known as a name that is a racist and misogynist term for Native American women.

Last month, the American Ornithological Society hosted a Congress on English Bird Names. Many stakeholders participated including the National Audubon Society, the American Birding Association and prominent birders like David Sibley.

The congress was held in part to address the bird names for birds movement. Supporters advocate for the replacement of all common names named after a person (eponyms) with a name describing a distinctive characteristic of the bird. For instance, Bicknell’s thrush might become treeline thrush and Wilson’s warbler might become black-capped warbler. Those new names are much more informative than eponymous common names.

There was very strong support for getting eponyms removed from common names entirely. I think this approach is a wise one.

Few would object to the removal of some eponyms. The Reverend John Bachman (Bachman’s warbler, Bachman’s sparrow) was a slave-owner and white supremacist. John Townsend (Townsend’s solitaire, Townsend’s warbler) practiced phrenology and raided Native American burial grounds for skulls.

But, no one wants to go through all the eponyms for North American birds (there are over 100) and judge if a person passes muster for having a bird named for her or him. It’s easier to just disallow eponymous common names.

Look for lots of common name changes in the next few years. It will take time to get consensus on new common names.

By the way, scientific names operate on a priority basis so thick-billed longspur will be Rhyncophanes mccownii in perpetuity. Common names are not bound by this convention.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at [email protected]


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