Our relationship with nature often begins with a name.
It’s an introduction that tells us something about that animal, like spotted turtle, gray tree frog, or yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In many cases that creature’s name is not a window into its natural history, but a remnant of our own.
But, America is trying to come to terms with its complicated racial past by changing the names of institutions, ranging from military bases to baseball teams.
Now efforts are also underway to change the names of some living monuments — birds.
When early naturalists like John James Audubon discovered a new bird, for example, they often named it after a friend or colleague.
“There’s Wilson’s warbler, and Swainson’s warbler, and Kirtland’s warbler,” lists Kenn Kaufman, author of several birding field guides.
“You’ve got Nuttall’s woodpecker, and Cassin’s vireo, Cassin’s auklet, and then there’s Botteri’s sparrow, and Bachman’s sparrow,” he says.
Kaufman, like many birders, hadn’t paid much attention to the people behind the bird names.
That is, until last year when he learned more about that last guy on his list.
“John Bachman was a Lutheran minister in South Carolina,” Kaufman says.
Removing eponymous bird names to be more inclusive
“He also fancied himself to be a scientist,” says Kaufman, “and part of what he wrote about was suggesting that whites were just naturally superior to members of other races.” He says Bachman’s theories supported efforts to justify slavery.
“Once you start realizing that kind of thing about these historical characters,” says Kaufman, “the bird names take on a more sinister tone.”
It’s a tone that birding activists are trying to change.
Jordan Rutter, a young birder from Washington, D.C., is co-founder of Bird Names for Birds, a group trying to make birding more inclusive by removing all eponymous bird names, that is, those named after people.
Rutter, in August 2020, petitioned the American Ornithological Society, the body that determines the names of birds, to take up the cause.
“We call these bird names verbal statues,” Rutter says, “because so many of them truly are honoring folks that were involved in colonial and Confederate times.”
Rutter says removing eponymous names might also reenergize efforts to protect bird habitats.
“As we have this community-wide education event to relearn the names, we can talk about the conservation need that they have.”
Not all eponymous names should be changed
American Ornithological Society president Mike Webster is committed to the idea.
“We want to, and will, change those bird names that need to be changed,” he says.
Webster points to last year when McCown’s longspur was renamed the thick-billed longspur, after it was noted that John McCown was a Confederate general. He says it reflects a new consideration for social justice concerns.
But Webster is not convinced all eponymous names need changed.
Last month, he set up an 18-member committee of ornithologists, experts, and activists o decide how to manage the process and cautions against too rapid of a switch.
He says common names, like street names, provide guidance for those navigating the scientific literature, “And if you changed the names of a quarter of the streets in a particular city overnight, that would cause chaos.”
Bird-watching has a diversity problem
The name change movement is part of a growing awareness that bird-watching has a diversity problem.
“I feel like it’s a start,” says Nicole Jackson, a birder in Columbus, Ohio.
She’s one of the organizers of Black Birders Week, which was first held last year after a Black birder was accosted by a white woman in Central Park.
One goal of the event is to highlight the need for safe access to nature for people of color.
“Black people are in these spaces,” says Jackson, “and we need to feel like we have enough of a community that we can talk to each other and feel safe.”
#BlackinNature and #SafeinNature are themes in this year’s Black Birders Week.
Tykee James is a birding activist in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of Freedom Birders.
The project is inspired by the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights movement, which traces a route for Black birders to travel through the South in pursuit of their hobby.
“As an activist in the birding community I would say that I’m seeking to decolonize the birding experience,” says James says.
He says that white, colonial past has been handed down in the names of around 150 North American birds named after people.
James believes names should say something about the birds themselves and their natural history, “not glorifications of folks that would not want people like me birding today.”
The renaming committee is expected to have its recommendations ready by the end of the year.