Birds in the Americas Will No Longer Be Named After People

The American Ornithological Society, the organization responsible for standardizing English bird names across the Americas, announced on Wednesday that it would rename all species honoring people. Bird names derived from people, the society said in a statement, can be harmful, exclusive and detract from “the focus, appreciation or consideration of the birds themselves.”

That means the Audubon’s shearwater, a bird found off the coast of the southeastern United States, will no longer have a name acknowledging John James Audubon, a famous bird illustrator and a slave owner who adamantly opposed abolition. The Scott’s oriole, a black-and-yellow bird inhabiting the Southwest and Mexico, will also receive a new moniker, which will sever ties to the U.S. Civil War general Winfield Scott, who oversaw the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples in 1838 that eventually became the Trail of Tears.

The organization’s decision is a response to pressure from birders to redress the recognition of historical figures with racist or colonial pasts. The renaming process will aim for more descriptive names about the birds’ habitats or physical features and is part of a broader push in science for more welcoming, inclusive environments.

“We’re really doing this to address some historic wrongs,” said Judith Scarl, the executive director of the American Ornithological Society. Dr. Scarl added that the change would help “engage even more people in enjoying and protecting and studying birds.”

“It wasn’t a wake-up call,” Ms. Rutter said, but brought “long-known but not highlighted issues to the forefront of the bird community.”

The Central Park encounter inspired the creation of Black Birders Week, an annual campaign to celebrate the lives and careers of Black birders, which then spurred an avalanche of similar initiatives in the sciences against the backdrop of a nationwide racial reckoning. In 2021, the Entomological Society of America began the Better Common Names Project to change the names of insects deemed inappropriate or derogatory. Astronomers have also advocated for the renaming of major telescopes that they say alienate people from marginalized backgrounds.

In birding communities, pushes to move away from problematic bird names have produced mixed results. The Bird Union and the Chicago Bird Alliance recently changed their names to avoid an association with Audubon. But the board of directors at the National Audubon Society voted to retain its name this year, saying that the mission of the organization transcended the history of one person.

In 2022, the American Ornithological Society announced the formation of an ad hoc committee to determine how to address controversial bird names. Members of the committee met every two weeks for months, discussing topics such as the importance of name stability and how to determine the criteria for changing a bird’s name.

Wednesday’s announcement is the culmination of that effort. In its statement, the American Ornithological Society committed to changing all bird names derived from people and assembling a diverse group to oversee the renaming process, which it said would include input from the general public. More than 100 avian species across the Americas will be given new names.

But to Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago who is an avid birder, the need for more descriptive names did not seem pressing. Performative acts like this “are really deeply injurious to science,” he said. “We cannot go back through the history of science and wipe out everybody who was not a perfect human being.” Dr. Coyne added that the effort to update so many names would be better invested in something more impactful to society, such as teaching underprivileged children about birds.

The American Ornithological Society plans to pilot a renaming program next year, starting with around 10 birds. Eventually, the program will expand to address all namesake birds in the United States and Canada, and then move on to avian species in Central and South America, which is the extent of the society’s naming jurisdiction.

Carlos Daniel Cadena, an ornithologist at the University of the Andes in Colombia and a leader of the English Bird Names Committee, expects the changes to entail a slight learning curve but also present a new opportunity for the public to bond over birds.

“It’s going to be a level playing field where we all need to learn together,” Dr. Cadena said.

He noted that the process might be adjusted for birds in Latin American countries, where people commonly refer to them by their scientific names.

With thousands of species across the Americas, birds are as diverse as the communities that cherish them. “Birds are by far the most accessible and beloved feature in biodiversity worldwide,” said Dr. Fitzpatrick. He added that more colorful names for these creatures would heighten “the ease by which new birders of every stripe” can enjoy them.

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