Thoughts on Changing Bird Names

For those who do not know, the AOS (American Ornithological Society) has recently announced that they are considering changing the official common names of many bird species, especially birds names after people. I am curious to know what people think of this decision?

Personally, I am absolutely against changing the common names of birds. Birders don’t understand how amazing it is that they have official common names for every species. It allows new birders (or even long time birders who don’t want to learn about scientific names) to be able to talk about any bird species and have any other birder know what they are talking species they are talking about (assuming the other birder had heard of the species before). If we change all of these bird names, then this can’t happen. New birders will get field guides like Sibley or Peterson and find out that half of the names in the guides aren’t what the birding community is using, and this may cause many of them to stop birding altogether (I know if this had happened when I began birding I would have done that). In a time when birding is less popular than ever before and birds are in trouble more than ever before, that’s quite a dangerous thing to do.

The only reasons I think it is acceptable to change a bird’s name is if the bird is being split into multiple species (not changing the name is often the more confusing move in this situation) or large groups of people are actively offended by a bird’s name. For example, Oldsqaw is an offensive slur still in use today, so it makes sense to change it to Long-tailed Duck (as was done). No large groups of people are offended by a bird being named after McCown, who, despite fighting for the confederacy during the American Civil War never owned slaves and spoke out against the confederacy after the war.

Of course, even if McCown had owned slaves I would be against renaming the bird. 99% of people who will have seen the bird will not know or care who McCown was, even then I think judging people of the past by modern standards is in general a bad idea.


South Africa has had to accept that our common bird names, have been changed to conform to foreign / international usage. Given a choice I would prefer a common name that describes the actual bird, to commemorating a ‘random’ person.

Names change. That is a fact we have to find a way to live with.


and this long thread


What makes you say birding is less popular than ever before? I think birding is MORE popular than ever before - eBird is growing rapidly and over the past year, people around the world have had opportunities to get out and enjoy birdwatching more than they’d ever be able to. This is the best time to change common names: while a large number of people are learning new names.

The debate over continuing to glorify oppressive historical figures vs. symbolically moving on from an era is a debate that American society has gone through the motions with countless times in the past few years, for example with Confederate statues commemorating said figures. Why should we stick with these names when we could instead use a neutral, descriptive name? Long-tailed ducks have long tails. We see a duck with an extremely long tail and think, “oh, perhaps that’s one of those long-tailed ducks I read about! Ah, yes, I looked up ‘long-tailed duck’ in my bird guide and here it is!”. What is the argument for keeping the name McCown? Just because we have to remember a new name? Or because you want to continue glorifying him? Bird names aren’t the way we remember our history - museums are.


Have you ever been to a birding event? It’s all older people. The internet has made hobbies and clubs the least popular they’ve ever been in history. Birding is feeling this just as much as any other activity.

I’ve long admired the ornithological groups, like AOS, for tackling the common names problem and establishing standardized names for birds. Birders have long been able to communicate effectively just using the common names. The organizations that focus on other vertebrate groups have not done such a good job, with maybe the herpetologists doing reasonably well in recent years. But I’ve come to accept that even standardized common or English names are really not standard and they continue to evolve based on changes in taxonomy or changing perceptions about what is an appropriate common name.

I know the issue of common names derived from people has become a motivation for revision, especially for birds. I don’t have a strong opinion either way on that – a name is a name, as long as it’s recognizable and distinct from others. I expect that bird guides of the future will simply have to point out where common names have changed and include the now-defunct alternative name alongside the new name to avoid confusion. Mammalogists and botanists have been juggling multiple names for some species for many years.


That’s only valid for birding clubs. If you only include birding clubs / hobby groups, yes, they are less popular now. But, like you acknowledged, that’s because hobby groups / clubs in general are declining, and the fact that birding is feeling it as much as any other activity does not mean that birds are less interesting or popular now, but rather that clubs are less popular now.

Though anecdotal, I can agree with the age group aspect! But I had also been one of the only young people in my other nature-related hobby groups as well. It’s easy to imagine that this is again a product of clubs being less popular now.

However, birding or birdwatching - no matter what the distinction between those two terms are, if there are any - are not activities exclusive to clubs. You can call yourself a birder or birdwatcher without ever being a member of a club, Society, hobby group, etc. and watching birds out in nature will probably never go out of style unless birds no longer exist. It’s inaccurate to suggest that birding is declining when it is instead the concept of a hobby club that is declining.

Back on topic, I don’t think changing the names of a handful of birds would ever have any measurable impact on the interest in watching birds. The only thing I can see happening is that some older people might get annoyed and refuse to call the bird by the old name or simply forget. If you enjoy watching birds, you probably won’t lose that interest if you thought a timberdoodle, a bogsucker, and an American woodcock were three different birds. Worst case scenario is that bird guides have little notes saying ‘this species is also known as X, Y, or Z’, which could be helpful for some people anyway with birds like the American woodcock.


I never been to a birder event, does it change anything really? Not gonna discuss names as it was done in previous post, but birding always was and is very popular, I guess the most popular because of easiness out of other nature hobbies (and it doesn’t need a club to get into).


Another concern I have is that I’m bad at learning new names, if eBird adopts 300 new names or whatever it will basically become unusable for me and probably others as well.

I’m also not a fan of how politically motivated the whole idea is.

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It is far from being a simple question of bird names, we are dealing here with a question of value and respect. There is currently an “American” will to no longer honor slavers, fraudsters, and other looters. It is in this same spirit that ornithological clubs and institutions are trying to make more room for diversity in their ranks. Several ornithologists are also in favor of having the names of birds better reflect their characteristics … which will also lead in 5 or 10 years to changes in the names of birds associated with place names (city or state).


That’s thing - in the end this may lead to almost half of North American bird names being changed! We are just throwing this amazing nomenclature stability out the window!

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One of my favorite neighborhood birds is Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya), a species whose genus, specific epithet, and common name honor the American naturalist, Thomas Say. I don’t know if Say did anything controversial in his short life, or if that common name is on the chopping block, but I won’t be calling this bird anything else.


Stuff changes, people deal with it (positively or antagonistically). You’re asserting that it’s acceptable to change names around if the species is split or lumped into X number of new species, but there I’ve encountered plenty of folks (both online and IRL) who lash out against that and claim to have lost (or at least experienced diminished) interest in birding because of it.

I’m not aware of any methodical study of the amount of birders, but old-timers I’ve talked to have almost universally spoken about the number of new birders in recent years, particularly younger folks (whether or not they think that that’s a good thing is a whole other matter though).

Generally speaking, field guides will follow official name changes (especially ones as official as the AOS), or at least have the old names on record to avoid precisely the type of situation you’re describing. I’m also a bit confused by your comment that birders “don’t understand how amazing it is that they have official common names for every species.” They…still will after name changes, no? They’d just be different names, not unofficial ones (also “official” is only what we make it and all that drivel, etc.)

Also, this is also not the first time that bird names have changed; plenty of species have seen name changes in the past, and people have generally dealt with it and moved on. Tricolored Heron used to be Louisiana Heron, for example, but that got changed, and aren’t we better off for it now? The heron is found in Louisiana, sure, but it’s also found in dozens of other states in the US alone, plus a bucketful of other countries. Seems aggressively silly to call something a “Louisiana Heron” when you can see it in the mangrove swamps of Costa Rica, just as it’s silly to keep names like “Connecticut Warbler” (rare in the state, literally breeds on the other side of NA).

And of course, the now-(in)famous McKay’s Bunting (or Thick-billed Bunting, which managed to be just as useless in describing the silly little grass-sparrow). For one thing, McKay spoke out against the Confederacy, sure, but that was after Jeff Davis and other members of Confederate leadership booted his ass out of his command. Maybe he did have an ideological stick to grind, but also, like, maybe not. And even if McKay was a stellar guy by the standards of today or yesteryear, the name still utterly fails to describe a dapper bird which breeds in a distinctive and declining ecosystem, performs ethereally beautiful and time-stopping sky-dances, and sports dapper colours that puts any Southern evening best to shame.

Also also, you mentioned earlier that you accept the name-change of Oldsquaw because it was offensive to a certain group. You then stated that you’d be in favor of keeping McCown’s Longspur even if he did own slaves, which, like…okay? That doesn’t really follow with me…

Also also also, while I may have agreed with the “99% of people won’t care” bit prior to last year, when this whole thing got blown open, the same is certainly not true anymore.


It’s been thrown out of the window before–the stability you’re talking about is a fairly recent thing. People dealt with it then, and people can deal with it now.


I really don’t see the big deal with changing names. Us “plant people” are generally familiar with at least several names (common and scientific) for the same species. Sometimes a single species may have several scientific names used by different authors (such as in the case of one author following a split, and the other only recognizing one species under the old name). It is not by any means uncommon that you have to choose which name(s) you use, based on your understanding of morphological and ecological differences between the taxa in question (an example would be Urtica dioica and U. gracilis). There is no single “authority” who gets to decide which names everyone else uses; disagreement with established taxonomy should be encouraged. This extends to common names too, for instance, I prefer to use “yellowbud hickory” for Carya cordiformis because of its distinctive yellow buds, whereas “bitternut hickory” is sometimes applied to other members of this genus and refers to a trait that most observers are not going to check.

I don’t see why this should be much different for birds; and frankly, I dread the idea of an “authority” deciding which common names one should use. I do not think common names must be descriptive of the organism they are applied to either, as while I’m not a big fan of naming species after people, there are many traditional common names which convey a sense of appreciation for a species and I would hate for that to be lost to a descriptive name.

In short, both scientific and common names change, different names for the same species are used in different places, and even by different people based on personal preference – that is just the way it should be.


You will have an excellent summary of the debate at this web address:
The Cotton Wood Post

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I haven’t seen any proposal to change hundreds of bird names, so that just seems like a straw man argument. In reality, it’s unlikely that more than a few names would change in any given year, which is something that happens already and we have to deal with it. When I started birding there were still Rufous-sided Towhees and Grey-headed Negrofinches, and Black-headed Gulls were still in the genus Larus. No more, for various reasons, and that’s no bad thing.

Change happens all the time, as our knowledge and understanding improve, and that includes not only taxonomic knowledge but our knowledge and understanding of the past wrongs committed by our ancestors. It seems pretty odd to keep calling species after (mostly dead) people, a substantial number of whom did some pretty horrendous things, instead of after characteristics of the species themselves. Surely we can do better? Gradually weeding out the most egregious honorifics would be a simple mark of respect for those whose ancestors suffered at the hands of men we now unthinkingly honour.

If there are people who find it impossible to enjoy birdwatching any more because they knew a species as McCown’s Longspur, and now it’s called Thick-billed Longspur, well, that’s pretty strange in my view, but so be it. Losing such folks will be balanced out by making the world of birds less off-putting to other people who would recoil at the fact that we honour long-dead men whose power and prejudices were used to enslave and kill their ancestors. If I were a native American or an African American I’d feel pretty uncomfortable having to associate a bird with the name of a man who fought for slavery and who led campaigns against the Seminoles.

Something I’ve heard several times in relation to this debate is: “Keep politics out of birding.” What those saying it don’t often seem to realise is that maintaining these honorific names is political. Replacing them would go some way to getting the politics out of birding. So yes, please, let’s keep politics out of birding, and get rid of the names of long-dead generals.


I knew this pic will be useful.


It is also fairly uniquely American, and as said above, recently American to have the ‘one true name’ codified.

In single birding outings, I’ve heard Phalacrocorax carbo referred to as kawau, great cormorant, black cormorant, black shag, great black shag, Australasian great cormorant. Eudyptula minor as kororā, little blues, little penguin, blue penguin, fairy penguin. It’s not that big a deal if someone uses a different one than I generally would, and especially if they are descriptive (great black shag, little blue penguin) rather than an honorific name that doesn’t contribute to a description.

I would think if anything moving away from honorifics will assist in new birders picking up names, rather than needing to memorise names non-descriptive of the birds themselves. Even before adding on any ethical & inclusion issues, honorific names just don’t seem necessary and descriptive better and more likely to stick around in usage. Only counterargument seems to be inertia


I feel like the harm of name changes is being dramatically overstated here. It’s at most a minor inconvenience.