Why Dozens of North American Birds Will Soon Get New Names

In a bid to make birding more inclusive, the American Ornithological Society will give new monikers to several species named after people

Small brownish bird against a backdrop of prairie grass
In 2020, the American Ornithological Society dubbed this bird, formerly named for a Confederate general, the “thick-billed longspur." Skip Russell via Flickr> under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Starting next year, dozens of birds will be getting new names. The American Ornithological Society announced Wednesday that it will choose new monikers for North American birds named after people, as well as birds with names deemed to be offensive or exclusionary.

“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today,” Colleen Handel, the society’s president and a biologist with the United States Geological Survey, says in a statement. “We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves.”

The decision follows months of meetings and discussions about how the group should handle birds named after problematic historical figures, including enslavers, colonialists, racists and grave-robbers.

Eventually, rather than evaluating individual species on a case-by-case basis, the organization decided to change all eponymous bird names.

“They imply possession of a species,” says Erica Nol, who co-chairs the American Ornithological Society’s ad-hoc renaming committee, to the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears. “They are overwhelmingly from a particular time and social fabric, they are almost all white men, few women, and women were almost all first names.”

The society will focus on an initial group of 70 to 80 species that primarily inhabit the U.S. and Canada. It plans to establish a new committee that will oversee the name changes and engage the public in their decisions.

They will not change the birds’ scientific names, even though some of those are also derived from people’s names.

The initiative’s main goal is to help make birding—and bird conservation—more inclusive and welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Some three billion birds have disappeared from North America since 1970—and amid habitat loss, collisions with windows, threats from cats and climate change, birds need all the help they can get to reverse their decline.

“We need as many people as possible to get excited about birds and unite to protect them,” says Judith Scarl, the society’s executive director and CEO, in the statement.

Since 1886, the American Ornithological Society and its predecessor organization have maintained a list of common, English bird names in North America. Periodically, the group has re-selected a bird’s name, but those changes were primarily made for scientific reasons.

In recent years, however, the society began to consider name changes to promote social justice. That shift largely began in 2020, after a police officer murdered George Floyd and sparked nationwide racial justice protests. On the same day Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, a white woman falsely accused Christian Cooper, a Black birder, of threatening her life in New York City’s Central Park.

On the heels of the Central Park incident, activists formed a grassroots group called Bird Names for Birds and began to push the American Ornithological Society to rename all eponymous avian species.

For example, in the case of a prairie bird named for Confederate General John P. McCown, the society had rejected a proposal to rename it in 2019. But it reversed course in 2020, choosing to deem the species the “thick-billed longspur.”

Last year, the society convened an ad-hoc committee with diverse members to study the bird naming issue more broadly.

The group is prepared for pushback following its decision. However, some longtime birders have already come around to the idea, including Kenn Kaufman, a well-known field guide author. Though he initially opposed the renaming plan, he now sees it as an “exciting opportunity to give these birds names that celebrate them—rather than some person in the past,” he says to NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce.

And, in the end, the birds won’t care what ornithologists decide to call them. “Names are important for humans,” Nol tells NPR.

More than likely, the birds’ new names will reflect their characteristics or identifying features. For example, the Wilson’s warbler is a songbird named after 19th-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson. But the bird has a distinctive patch of black feathers on its head, so renaming it something like “black-capped warbler” could help birders know what to look for, says Cooper, who now hosts a National Geographic birding show, to the New York Times’ Katrina Miller.

“There’s no reason to have a person’s name attached to a bird, because it doesn’t tell you anything about the bird,” Cooper says to the Times.

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