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Canceled: Nothing safe as bird names changed for being ‘exclusionary’

By CM Chaney · November 2, 2023

In brief…

  • American Ornithological Society will change offensive bird names
  • Goal is to move away from racist and exclusionary names
  • Part of effort to diversify birding, engage more people
  • Comes amid major bird population declines in North America
The American Ornithological Society announced plans to change the English names of birds in the U.S. and Canada that are deemed offensive or exclusionary, as part of an effort to diversify birding and engage more people in protecting birds amid major population declines.  Bettina Arrigoni / Wikimedia

The American Ornithological Society announced plans this week to change the English names of all bird species in the U.S. and Canada that are currently named after people. The goal is to move away from names “deemed offensive and exclusionary,” according to the organization.

For example, the Thick-billed Longspur was previously named after Confederate Army General John P. McCown, which represents a painful link to slavery and racism.

“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today,” said American Ornithological Society President Colleen Handel in a statement.

The renaming initiative will begin next year, with the society setting up a naming committee and seeking public input for new names for up to 80 affected bird species. The birds’ existing scientific names will remain unchanged.

“As scientists, we work to eliminate bias in science. But there has been historic bias in how birds are named, and who might have a bird named in their honor,” said Executive Director and CEO Judith Scarl. “Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today, and the time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs.”

The move is part of a broader effort to diversify birding and make it more inclusive. The society hopes that more people will become interested in protecting birds, which are facing major declines. A 2019 report found that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970, and 10 types were declared extinct this October by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“To reverse these alarming bird population declines, we need as many people as possible to get excited about birds and unite to protect them,” said Scarl.