Lincoln’s Sparrow / Jennifer McKeirnan
by Anna Luisa Daigneault
The moment is ripe to not only topple eponymous names, but to include more indigenous knowledge in the global conversation about birds.
“Lincoln’s Sparrow” was named after Thomas Lincoln, a young American who took part in John James Audubon’s expedition to Natashquan, Quebec (in the Innu language, Natashquan means “where one hunts for bear”). According to Audubon, he and his men were trying to shoot sparrows to study them, and were having trouble staking their claim. He wrote that “chance placed my young companion, Thomas Lincoln, in a situation where he saw it alight within shot, and with his usually unerring aim, he cut short its career. On seizing it, I found it to be a species which I had not previously seen; and, supposing it to be new, I named it Tom’s Finch, in honour of our friend Lincoln, who was a great favourite among us.”
With one anecdotal bang, the sparrow that fell from the sky became associated with Thomas Lincoln, and every ornithology database in the world now labels the bird as such, because of the power of Audubon’s word. As J. Drew Lanham observed in his powerful article about birding, racism and white privilege, “Audubon’s work became canon, and John James himself akin to birders’ Jesus”.
When birds are named after individuals who “discovered” them during the process of imperialism and colonial expansion, it indicates that certain white (and often male) people are worthy of being remembered and forever glorified alongside those species. Eponymous bird names are those named in this way, and they convey a sense of ownership to the naturalists (or their ruddy companions) who identified them in the Western scientific record. Gambel’s Quail was named after William Gambel, a 19th-century naturalist and explorer of the Southwestern United States. Bachman’s Sparrow was named after John Bachman, a clergyman from Charleston, South Carolina, who hosted Audubon during his expedition. The list goes on. This process is not necessarily new. The Alexandrine parakeet gets its name from Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who exported the birds throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.
The Bird Names for Birds movement argues that these names are like “verbal statues” and that the moment has come for the birding community to take a long, hard look at the institutions and systems that perpetuate white colonial ideals. It is indeed time for a creative shift in bird naming conventions so they may reflect values such as inclusivity and diversity in our society. In April 2021, the American Ornithological Society convened a “Community Congress on Eponymous English Bird Names” specifically to address issues of taxonomy for common bird names in the English language. As they aptly put it, the current discussions about surrounding eponyms sit “at the intersection of taxonomic stability and social justice concerns.” Many ornithologists and birding communities are enthusiastic and supportive of this shift, as evidenced by the popularity of the hashtag #BirdNamesForBirds on social media platforms. It is part of a broader trend towards decolonization as well as an understanding that humans are part of nature, not its owners. As ornithological illustrator Liz Clayton-Fuller observed in an interview for this article, “there is no ownership over nature, nor should there be. The truth is, we are active agents in the creation of the reality we want to live in.”
This renaming process parallels the timely push to remove the statues of Confederate figures throughout the South. Black Lives Matter created real momentum for addressing the wide-ranging impacts of white supremacy in the United States and around the globe, and also raised important questions that affect the scientific community: how do we meaningfully dismantle systems of oppression that have been around for so long? How do we deal with this when it comes to taxonomies? Missing from these community discussions are Indigenous perspectives on bird names.
White-crowned Sparrow / Darcy Barry, @darcyrbarry
The moment is ripe to not only topple eponymous names, but to include more Indigenous knowledge in the global conversation about birds. In a time of shifting power dynamics, the act of naming is a form of power. Assigning a name to something means giving it a symbolic designation that has the power to become part of our everyday lives and embedded into humanity’s collective memory. In the process of renaming common bird names, should we not consider what Indigenous knowledge has been erased or suppressed during centuries of colonization, and take the opportunity to restore it? These birds also had a multitude of indigenous names before European settlers arrived. Is it not important to know about indigenous naming systems and what knowledge they hold about local ecosystems?
Let’s turn back to the unfortunately named “Lincoln’s Sparrow” for a moment. This bird, like thousands of others, has been known by the Indigenous people of North America for millennia. The species has a huge range and can be found across great swaths of the continent. It is called tsook’all in the Denaakk’e language of Alaska (a tongue also known as Koyukon Athabaskan).
Denaakk’e language teacher and activist Susan Paskvan recounts that tsook’all along with other birds such as k’etlen ts’ehʉt’aane (white-crowned sparrow) and deldoole (crane) are protagonists in complex traditional stories that are interwoven with the local landscape and have been passed down from generation to generation. Paskvan’s online presentation Introduction To Denaakk’e Through Bird Songs includes her description: “During the K’edon Ts’ednee times, a time long ago, the animals and birds were able to talk to each other. Many of our beliefs originated during these legendary times. The bird songs tell about events that happened during the K’edon Ts’ednee times.” Paskvan’s insights are revelatory because she shows that Indigenous Denaakk’e names for birds can be related to their complex behavior in the landscape they inhabit, and their role in indigenous oral history.
American Crow / Roniq Bartanen, @she_birds
English common names for birds tend to focus on their visible, distinguishing traits. What if new names could incorporate other types of information? In speaking with Canadian multidisciplinary Métis artist Moe Clark about her thoughts on decolonizing bird names in North America, she observed: “When I think about birds, I think about their relationships to the land, their actions and the sounds that they make.” She noted that the Cree word for “small owl” is kohkohkohow, or ᑯᐦᑯᐦᑯᐦᐅᐤ in Cree syllabics. The word is not only reminiscent of the hooting sound an owl makes, but it also resembles the Cree term kohkom (ᑯᐦᑯᒼ) which means “your grandmother”. An owl is seen as a grandmother figure who watches over the world at night. Both its sound and relationship with humans is embedded in the word kohkohkohow.
In Moose Cree, a dialect of Cree spoken in northern Ontario, the basic word for ‘bird’ is pilešîš and there are numerous offshoots that indicate habitat, behavior and seasonality such as pilesiw (a large bird, or waterfowl in general), pilew (a terrestrial bird), šîšîp (a duck), nîpini-pilešîš (a summer bird) and piponi-pilešîš (a winter bird). These terms show an understanding of local birds’ connection with the landscape and time of year. A recent article published by BBC discusses just how richly Indigenous people describe their knowledge about birds’ migratory and subsistence patterns just based on listening to their sounds in the canopy.
The sounds made by birds are prominent in bird-naming conventions in indigenous languages. In Tutelo-Saponi-Monacan, an indigenous Siouan language being revived in North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio, the word for “crow” is ka:xi (or ka:hi) closely resembles the sound made by crows. In Oneida, an Iroquoian language spoken in upstate New York, the word for “chickadee” is tsiktsile·lé which resembles the same alarm call made by the bird that the English word refers to.
When I think about birds, I think about their relationships to the land, their actions and the sounds that they make.
Phainopepla / Roniq Bartanen, @she_birds
Cultural knowledge surrounding bird calls is also passed down in indigenous traditions. A black silky bird known as “Phainopepla” in English is known as guegue in Opata, a dormant Uto-Aztecan language being revived in the US and Mexico. Descendants observe in their online Opata Living Dictionary that guegue “has a song that is interpreted as an omen of war. Because of its sinister omen, it is also known as sumagua (a war bird or warrior bird)”.
In a similar vein, the bird known as “Smooth-billed Ani” in English is known as aané by the Ayoreo in Paraguay. It is stated in the Ethno-Ornithology World Atlas (EWA) that “If this bird sings at night, it can be taken as a warning that there will soon be orphans in the community (i.e., an attack/ deaths are imminent).” Interestingly, the indigenous name of this bird brings up a fascinating taxonomic insight. In documenting the Ayoreo knowledge about the aané bird in 2018, anthropologist Felice Wyndham noted that the Linnaean scientific name Crotophaga ani most likely came from an indigenous language of South America:
“The Latin name of this bird was given by Linnaeus, 1758. At first glance, I was struck that the Ayoreo name and the Latin species name were so similar (aané and ani). I speculated that it might be due to the bird’s call, as an onomatopoeic name. But then I found this: “ani: Tupi Indian= ani, angi, anim,= Tupi Indian name used to designate a social bird” suggesting that the Ayoreo name is a borrowing from Tupí Guaraní (geographically/ historically though not linguistically close), as, probably, did Linnaeus. I would be intrigued to know the route by which Linnaeus gave this species the Tupi name, how many of his names have indigenous language roots, and what his process was. I have since discovered that he drew many names from the Guaraní language when setting a species’ “Linnaean” name.”
The time has come to shift the colonial mindset around bird names and re-evaluate naming conventions for the better. Ornithological databases should not only value descriptive names for birds, pay attention to local and indigenous knowledge about birds. The Ethno-ornithology World Atlas is a great example of collaborative, scholarly strides in this direction, and its mission focuses on “engagement of all people in bird conservation by opening a space where they can share their knowledge, language traditions, and understandings of birds. Founded on the recognition that humans everywhere are inspired culturally, practically and spiritually by birds, EWA is about building relationships between Indigenous and local communities, conservationists, academics, and their institutions, to promote bird conservation through the engagement with, respect for and celebration of diverse cultural traditions of knowledge.”
It is important to keep in mind that this shift is part of the larger movements of decolonization of indigenous territories, land acknowledgments, and repatriation of stolen artifacts that are taking shape alongside social and climate justice. One can look to examples such as valuing place names in indigenous languages for inspiration. For example, the University of Maine recently created bilingual signage in English and Penobscot to value the fact that the campus is on Wabanaki territory. Ornithologists and other scholars may consider the same approach of valuing indigenous knowledge when updating their databases in the coming years. While it is impossible to change history, it is entirely possible to meaningfully look at the negative impacts of colonization and white supremacy on the land we live on, and the way it has shaped how we name the world around us.
Anna Luisa Daigneault
Program Director, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Anna Luisa Daigneault is a linguistic anthropologist, writer and musician. She holds a Masters of Science in Linguistic Anthropology from Université de Montréal in Canada, and currently serves as Program Director of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a nonprofit based in the US. Her articles about protecting the world’s linguistic diversity have been published by The Dominion, Global Voices, and SAPIENS. She specializes in documenting the indigenous languages of the Americas and creating technological tools for language activists.
Introduction to Denaakk'e Through Bird Songs
“During the K’edon Ts’ednee times, a time long ago, the animals and birds were able to talk to each other. Many of our beliefs originated during these legendary times. The bird songs tell about events that happened during the K’edon Ts’ednee times.”
~ Susan Paskvan
- The Conversation “How birds are used to reveal the future”
- BBC Future “Why local legends about birds matter”
- Audubon Magazine “What do we know about John James Audubon?”