Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch / Canva
On July 8, 2021 the Seattle Audubon Society Board of Directors affirmed its support for “Birds Names for Birds” and joined the call to put an end to the practice of eponymous naming. When a bird is named after a person—think Wilson’s Warbler—it is what’s known as an “eponymous” or “honorific” name. In recent years, intensifying in recent months, this practice has come into question by those who advocate for creating more inclusive spaces in birding and ornithology. Rallying around the call of “Bird Names for Birds,” objections to eponymous names center on the idea that these names celebrate colonialism and perpetuate racism.
We should change the names
Eponymous names are harmful. Many Black, Indigenous, and other community leaders of color have reported that they are actively being harmed by eponymous names. Throughout events like #BlackBirdersWeek, which highlights the experiences and contributions of Black birders and scientists, participants have called out the gatekeeping and other exclusionary practices that eponymous bird names represent.
Eponymous names are a barrier. Whether or not you know anything about birds, you might be able to guess the color of a Yellow Warbler, or where you might find a Marsh Wren. What does the name Steller’s Jay or Townsend’s Warbler tell you about a bird? Eponymous names can be harder to learn and serve as a barrier to more people engaging with bird conservation. English bird names would make birding more accessible, if they were descriptive.
It’s not simply about “bad” people. Many folks were introduced to the topic of eponymous bird names following the successful campaign to rename the Thick-billed Longspur, which was formerly named after a Confederate Army officer, John P. McCown. Thanks to historical records, we know a lot about who McCown was and the racist values he fought to uphold. Few argued that this eponym should persist.
Unfortunately, we know a lot less about the backgrounds of many figures with their names bestowed upon birds. Proponents of maintaining eponymous bird names, or of taking a more measured approach to changes, suggest evaluating each name one-by-one. Far from bad, many of these individuals may have been good people—even by today’s standards.
Advocates for Bird Names for Birds are less concerned with the debate over whether or not historical figures were “bad enough” to be stripped of their honorifics. According to organizers, “The vast majority of eponymous common names were applied to birds by European and American naturalists during a period of time known as colonialism, when (primarily) European countries subjugated, exploited, and populated territories held by non-white peoples.” Continuing the practice of eponymous naming upholds these ideals and glorifies Western science over Indigenous knowledge and experience.
We can change the names
Familiar names for birds have existed for as long as humans have had language. Today, many so-called “folk” names are still used. For scientific purposes, English common names are standardized by a committee of the American Ornithological Society (AOS). For example, what you may have grown up calling a Timberdoodle, the AOS calls an American Woodcock. Scientific literature, field guides, banding codes, and other such materials are all built around this standardized system.
Opponents argue that changing so many names would be costly and lead to unnecessary confusion among birders. Yet, changes are regularly made in the name of taxonomic integrity, as species are newly described, split, and merged. For example, in June, we said goodbye to the Mew Gull and hello to the Short-billed Gull in North America. If we are willing to make changes in the name of taxonomy, why not for the sake of equity? In May, the AOS convened a meeting on the subject and AOS President Mike Webster is reportedly in support of changes for at least some eponymous names.
We’re just getting started
It’s not lost on us that wading into this issue puts a spotlight on our own ‘Audubon’ namesake. Dr. J. Drew Lanham, in his comprehensive exploration of the life and legacy of John James Audubon, calls on white-led organizations to “decide who and what they want to be” in light of newly exposed truths about the figure we have memorialized on our letterhead. We intend to heed these words and are committed to identifying and dismantling systems of oppression in our organization and community, and to actively working toward an anti-racist future. This includes a reexamination of our organizational name, including the possibility of making a change. We’re looking to the National Audubon Society to lead us and its vast chapter network in this necessary work. This is the first step in what will be an ongoing conversation with our community and external partners. In the meantime, we want to hear from you. Click here to submit comments and/or reflections on the resources linked in the statement above.