In Defense of Bird Names
The American Ornithological Society has announced its commitment to changing “exclusionary or harmful bird names.” Nearly 150 birds in North America are named after people. The AOS is forming a committee to “tackle all of these eponyms at once,” says prominent birder Kenn Kaufman. The committee will “come up with alternatives, spend a lot of time getting buy-in from the larger community, and then establish a long lead time to a date when we flip the switch and adopt all of these new, better names.”
This decision marks the end of a year-long campaign that began in May 2020 after a viral incident in Central Park involving a black birdwatcher. Gay black comic-book writer Christian Cooper was birding in the park, saw a dog off its leash, berated the dog’s white owner, implied he was going to feed the dog a poisoned treat if she didn’t leash it, and then posted video of the confrontation online including the woman’s call to 911. This led to a spasm of racial sensitivity in the birding world, which culminated in the renaming of McCown’s longspur, after Confederate officer and amateur naturalist John P. McCown, as the “thick-billed longspur.”
The AOS’s new commitment goes far beyond scrubbing Confederates. The intention is to get rid of all bird names that honor people. “Bird Names for Birds” is the slogan of the group behind the push. As its organizers wrote in the Washington Post: “We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked.”
Instead, the idea is to make the replacement names more literal and descriptive. “A ‘red-winged blackbird,’ you know what the bird looks like,” one organizer explained. “It’s probably got red wings and it’s probably black.” Thus Kirtland’s warbler will become the “jack pine warbler” because that’s the kind of forest it lives in.
Before we start printing supremely rational guidebooks full of red-bellied mediumbirds and white seaside foodstealers, I would like to lodge an objection.
Bird names are one of the treasures of the English language. Some are onomatopoeic, like chickadee, bobolink, and dickcissel. Some are extravagantly latinate, like ferruginous hawk, olivaceous flycatcher, or flammulated owl. Some are just very, very old. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were talking about swans, sparrows, and ravens when William the Conqueror was a boy.
I spent hours as a child sitting in the backseat of the car poring over Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide as our family drove to and from birdwatching excursions. I wanted to grow up to be an ornithologist. (“No, honey, it’s pronounced ‘orthodontist,’” the nice ladies back in North Carolina used to tell me.) Part of the romance was that the names were not boring and descriptive. Whip-poor-will, bristle-thighed curlew, tawny frogmouth, Blackburnian warbler—named, incidentally, after a woman, naturalist Anna Blackburne—these were names that it was a pleasure to write down in my personal life list.
One of the first bird names on the chopping block is the oldsquaw, a type of duck described by guidebooks as “noisy and garrulous.” Other names for it include oldwife, old granny, Aunt Huldy, scoldenore, and scolder. Its Cree name was Hah-ha-way, which suggests that names alluding to its shrill call at least meet the criterion of being descriptive. Certainly more so than the woke campaigners’ preferred name, “long-tailed duck,” which is what they call the duck in England.
Not all bird names are derived from old white men. The chachalaca gets its name from the Nahuatl verb meaning “to chatter.” Anhinga is a Brazilian Tupi word. But even if they were, so what? It’s a lexicon worth preserving for the richness of its stories. Whooping cough has been eradicated but its echoes live on in the cry of the whooping crane. Zenaida doves were named by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, the emperor’s nephew, during his family’s exile in Pennsylvania. He wanted to honor his wife, Princess Zenaide, by linking her name with birds that symbolize conjugal bliss. Isn’t that better than anything a woke committee could come up with?
Ornithologist Dr. Elliott Coues, who cofounded the AOS in 1883, preferred strict literalism in bird names. He objected to calling large black shorebirds “oystercatchers” on the grounds that “oyster opener would be a better name, as oysters do not run fast.” Coues’s colleagues ignored his narrow-minded carping back then, and the name “oystercatcher” survived to be logged in my life list when I was 11. To preserve the richness of American bird names for future generations, today’s politically correct literalists deserve the same brushoff.