What’s In a Bird Name?

More than 100 North American birds carry the names of people, some of whom were enslavers, supremacists, or grave robbers. A growing movement aims to do away with honorifics all together and bestow monikers that reflect each species' unique qualities
An illustration of a bright, flying Wilson's Warbler emerging from a vintage John James Audubon illustration. The name "Wilson's Warbler" is hand-drawn and crossed out in the lower corner.
Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Update: On November 1, 2023, the American Ornithological Society announced that it will change all English bird names currently named after people. The effort will start next year and initially focus on up to 80 species found primarily in the United States and Canada. Before changing any Latin American bird names, which are also under its jurisdiction, the society said it will confer with ornithologists and organizations throughout Latin America. 

There is something remarkable about looking for birds at last light. When pandemic lockdowns began, I took daily walks around a placid lagoon in a park in downtown Santa Cruz, California. The verdant reeds and towering silver-barked trees glowed in the hours just before sunset. I didn’t know what these plants were called, but I carefully and meticulously learned the names of all the birds I saw and heard.

Songbirds and waterfowl seemed at home in a world awash in gold and I felt more attuned to their rhythms when we basked together in the last sliver of summer sunlight. If I was lucky, a little bird would appear among the thickets long enough for me to count its field marks—nimble flight, yellow-green feathers, a perfect black oval on its crown. A Wilson’s Warbler! I’d gleefully add this songbird to my checklist after the tiny floof flitted away into the brush.

I didn’t give much thought to its name. Whoever Wilson was had no bearing on my understanding of my new feathered familiar, except that maybe the “O” in its name felt like a nod to its dark cap. Flipping through my field guide, I saw four more birds bore the same possessive title. So the honorific became a passive marker for speaking of Wilson’s birds, but not for knowing them. As for other birds carrying people’s names, I’d misconstrued several to better suit my knowledge of the species. I’d spent years believing Steller’s Jay was called “Stellar Jay” because its plumage looked like the night sky. I’d assumed Cooper’s Hawks might steal chickens from coops at night.

I began to think more deeply about the names appended to the natural world as the pandemic wore on. Confined to my home, I logged eBird checklists of my backyard visitors while scrolling through my social media feeds, which were filled with scenes from racial-justice protests. Soon a video circulated of a white woman calling the cops on a Black birder in New York’s Central Park, bringing the outrage sparked by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd home to the birding community. The hashtag #SayTheirNames went viral. To say a name is to give breath to a legacy, to carry the past into the present. As birders, whose names do we say when we speak of birds?

A growing movement to reexamine names bestowed on everything from college campuses to city streets has swelled to encompass birders, ornithologists, and conservationists. Doing away with honorifics, they say, and renaming birds for the qualities that make each special, could make the birding world more inclusive for those who have long been left out or pushed away. Once unthinkable, the scientific body that governs bird names is finally embarking on a process that could redefine not only what we call myriad birds but also birding itself. 

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s with all birds, Wilson’s Warbler is only one of this songbird’s monikers. Its scientific name is Cardellina pusilla, Latin words that give biologists the rough coordinates of its classification within the tree of life. Every organism known to science has a taxonomical name consistent across countries, languages, and cultures. In field guides and news stories we generally use common names that are more fluid. On its Mexican overwintering grounds, for instance, Wilson’s Warbler is chipe corona negra, or black-crowned warbler.

About 150 of the roughly 2,000 North and Central American bird species have honorifics. Most were named for naturalists, such as Alexander Wilson, a chronicler of birdlife during the early 19th century and widely considered the father of American ornithology. The handful of names that commemorate women mostly use first names; Anna’s Hummingbird is a tribute to French courtier Anna Masséna, wife of an amateur ornithologist. While these figures don’t stir up much controversy, other species are saddled with heavier burdens.

Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole honor renowned avian artist John James Audubon (also the namesake of this magazine), an enslaver who collected skulls from Texas battlefields during his travels. His contemporary John Kirk Townsend plundered Native American graves; his legacy lives on with Townsend’s Warbler and Townsend’s Solitaire. Scott’s Oriole carries a banner for General Winfield Scott, who willingly accepted a leading role in the genocide of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears.

An illustration of a Cooper's Hawk, with the name crossed out and 'Ambush Hawk' and 'Swift Hawk' as possible names.An illustration of a Scott's Oriole, with the name crossed out and 'Yucca Oriole' and 'Lemon-yellow Yucca Oriole' as possible names.An illustration of a Steller's, with the name crossed out and 'Shadow Jay' and 'Mountain Jay' as possible names.

Steve Hampton has difficulty saying the general’s name, preferring to call the bird Yucca Oriole, for its association with the plant. A birder, former California Department of Fish & Wildlife employee, and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, he says honorifics are outdated relics that reflect a time when colonizers were “on the frontier, ethnically cleansing the West, and simultaneously discovering birds on the side.” He analyzed 80 birds with honorifics and found that most were bestowed to Western species in the mid-1800s. As white aggressors paved over the landscape with their names, he says, Indigenous bird names fell victim to the same erasure as mountains, valleys, and rivers.

About one-third of Hampton’s study set shows a mismatch between the meaning of the Latin name and the honoree, indicating these men likely weren’t the first to describe to science many of the birds they named. Take Bachman’s Sparrow. First described in 1823, its original scientific name, Fringilla aestivalis, translated roughly to “finch of summer.” When Audubon came across the bird nearly a decade later, he believed it to be a new discovery and he named it for his friend John Bachman, whose defense of slavery cast Black people as intellectually and biologically inferior.

The name Bachman’s Sparrow reveals nothing about the bird itself, says acclaimed ornithologist and poet J. Drew Lanham. “An honor is a privilege,” he says. The name was a favor from one enslaver to another, the gift of a bird between men who wouldn’t have considered Lanham a human being, he says, and an honor that neither enslavers nor birds deserve. What’s more, he adds, honorifics go against the tenets of rational science. He calls the bird Pinewoods Sparrow, a name that’s both poetic and scientifically accurate (the species was later reclassified Peucaea aestivalis, “pine-tree bird of summer”). When ornithologists insist on preserving these unobjective vestiges of the past under the guise of research stability, it sends a message that protecting the status quo is the top concern. So he and many others feel honorific names have to go. “We’re limiting birds to the fallibility of humanity,” Lanham says. “And that is a way of owning what should be wild and free from the names of humans that hang on their backs.” 

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lexander Wilson was first to describe the Wilson’s Warbler for science. He didn’t name it after himself. He called it the Green Black-capt Flycatcher, and its scientific name at the time meant “very small flycatcher.” Though Cardellina pusilla is not a flycatcher, the small wood-warbler is a brilliant yellow-green color and quick on the wing. Years later, French ornithologist Charles Bonaparte decided the bird ought to go by Wilson’s name instead.

I think that’s a shame. I appreciate learning about Wilson’s contributions, but that’s what the Internet is for, not the birds. “A bird never taught me a history lesson,” says Jordan Rutter, a cofounder of Bird Names for Birds, a grassroots campaign that advocates for the removal of honorific and derogatory names. Each bird has many unique characteristics, from appearance and vocalizations to behaviors and habitat—characteristics reflected in the common and scientific names of many birds. The Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus, for instance, has a handsome crimson noggin, and “erythrocephalus” translates roughly to “red head” in Ancient Greek.

Prioritizing descriptive names over honorifics makes birding more welcoming, inclusive, and accessible, says Freya McGregor, programs and outreach director for the nonprofit Birdability. An occupational therapist by training, McGregor is working to lower the physical, social, cultural, and institutional barriers that prevent people with disabilities and health concerns from birding. Descriptive names are part of the recipe, she says. They’re easier for new birders to remember and they can provide concrete details about a species for birders who have blindness, low vision, deafness, or are hard of hearing.

An illustration of a Franklin's Gull, with the name crossed out and 'Prairie Gull' and 'Rosy Gull' as possible names.An illustration of a Anna's Hummingbird, with the name crossed out and 'Resplendent Rosy Jewel Throat', 'Hooded Zoomingbird', and 'Winter Hummingbird' as possible names.An illustration of a Wilson's Warbler, with the name crossed out and 'Black-Capped Flit Sprite' and 'Brilliant Warbler' as possible names.

Renaming birds also presents an opportunity to acknowledge the communities that colonialism pushed out. That’s what happened in 2020 when the Office of Hawaiian Affairs announced new Hawaiian language names for four birds native to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A working group of cultural practitioners, researchers, and community members chose the appellations based on Indigenous histories and naming practices. Among them, birder and educator Noah Gomes analyzed early written accounts of Hawai‘i’s natural history to reclaim lost common names. Onomatopoeic monikers that reference the calls were popular, he says, which is especially important since many native Hawaiian birds are more easily heard than seen.

Birds play prominent roles in Hawaiians’ oral traditions, Gomes says. Yet many species have gone extinct or are currently threatened because of habitat loss and invasive species introduced by the same colonizers who suppressed the use of Indigenous languages. “Creating a name or finding the name can feel like a powerful thing. This is a piece of the puzzle of the past that is now in place,” he says. Now Pterodroma hypoleuca can evoke ancient chants as the Nunulu. Puffinus nativitatis will call out its own name ʻAoʻū as it glides across the sea. “There’s no point in my using English names,” Gomes says. People concerned about consistency across languages or nations can use the Latin names or look up the English ones. But for anyone planning to bird with Gomes in Hilo, “they’re gonna have to learn our names.” 

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eople can call birds whatever they like, but the American Ornithological Society (AOS) officially determines the common names used by millions of birders and scientists across North and Central America. AOS routinely renames species for scientific reasons. In 1973, for instance, breeding studies spurred it to merge Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers into the Yellow-rumped Warbler (“butterbutts” to birders today). Historically AOS has not factored in a name’s potential to cause social harm.

It made that explicit in 2000 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska proposed that Oldsquaw, a racist term for Indigenous women, be changed to Long-tailed Duck to garner support from Indigenous communities where the bird was declining. AOS approved the change, but not due to offensiveness: “The Committee declines to consider political correctness alone in changing long-standing English names of birds but is willing in this instance to adopt an alternative name that is in use in much of the world.”

In 2019 AOS doubled down on that stance. McCown’s Longspur was named for John P. McCown, an amateur avian collector who accidentally harvested the first specimen with a stray pellet. McCown is best known for fighting to defend slavery as a Confederate general and going to war against Native tribes. The committee promptly rejected a name change proposal. “It is widely known that judging historical figures by current moral standards is problematic, unfair to some degree, and rarely black and white,” a member wrote in the ruling statement.

Rather than tether birds to our fraught past, we could make birds emblems of our bright future.

Many in the bird world may agree with that sentiment. But the fact that the committee routinely rules in favor of preserving the dignity of enslavers over the rightful concerns of today’s Black and Indigenous birding community members is evidence the system is broken, says Rutter, of Bird Names for Birds. Rather than tether birds to our fraught past, she says, we could make birds the emblems of our bright future.

On the heels of the inaugural Black Birders Week in June 2020, Bird Names for Birds penned an open letter demanding AOS acknowledge the harm caused by current naming practices and commit to fixing the system. More than 2,500 people—prominent ornithologists and weekend birders alike—signed the accompanying petition. That August, AOS announced it would change McCown’s Longspur to Thick-billed Longspur, an homage to the bird’s prominent bill as referenced in its Latin name, Rhynchophanes mccownii.

In April 2021 AOS held a virtual congress to discuss what sorts of considerations would need to be made in any future system for addressing harmful bird names. Representatives from nearly every leading North American bird research and advocacy organization presented a unified front. “We all agree that offensive, grossly inaccurate and exclusionary names must change,” summarized Marshall Iliff, an eBird project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The main point of friction at the congress arose from the importance of maintaining names for long-term studies. The USGS Bird Banding Laboratory, for instance, maintains more than 77 million records dating back to 1920. It defines each species by a four-letter code based on the common name—banders call Wilson’s Warbler “WIWA,” for example—and changing the codes would require an impressive feat of alphabetic gymnastics. What’s more, AOS would need to consider whether to rename subspecies. But those are surmountable challenges, and once they are hammered out, said Danny Bystrak, a now retired biologist at the lab, “The Bird Banding Lab should not have any problem with name changes.”

Geoff LeBaron, who runs Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, the nation’s longest-running community science project, was also on board. Changing names, he says, won’t threaten the integrity of the 123-year-old survey—in fact, it might just attract more participants. “We need to recognize that birding and ornithology and the interest in conservation and the outdoors need to expand beyond our current audience,” LeBaron says. “We have an opportunity to help move the game forward in terms of being a more welcoming field and hobby.”

Two preeminent bird guide authors, David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, support taking a clean sweep to all honorific bird names. Updating their apps and future editions of their books is straightforward, they say. The name is just one detail amid distribution maps, unique field marks, and other factors that help identify a species.

As a collector of bird field guides myself—from the Peterson’s I was given as a child to my new Spanish-language edition of Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America—I understand the frustration of outdated reference materials. So I’ve crossed out the old names—just one more annotation amid scribbled song mnemonics and observation notes. The books still work just fine with a little extra ink. 

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he American Ornithological Society is not the only institution confronting racial and cultural oppression through name changes. Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, has established a process to review and replace derogatory geographical names on federal lands. “Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage—not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” she said in a public statement in November.

Among the arbiters of animal names the Entomological Society of America (ESA) is leading the way with its Better Common Names Project. The initiative has been widely praised for its concerted efforts to invite people inside and outside the organization to nominate insects for a name change. ESA revoked the derogatory name Gypsy Moth for Lymantria dispar in June 2021, then considered community input for months before approving Spongy Moth. The process is intended to lay the groundwork for a long-term solution, says ESA president Jessica Ware. “A very successful outcome of the Better Common Names Project would be that that we wouldn’t need a Better Common Names Project,” she says. 

AOS is just starting its journey. In October the organization acknowledged its leadership does not adequately reflect diverse identities and perspectives, and it announced a diversity audit to assess its policies, practices, and leadership pipeline. In March AOS named the three cochairs of its English Bird Names Committee, which will set guidelines for defining harmful names. (It’s unclear whether the guidelines will apply to birds like the Eskimo Curlew and Flesh-footed Shearwater, whose names follow the same racist conventions that befouled the Long-tailed Duck.) Then the committee will determine priorities for settling on new names, such as restoring lost names, referencing Latin names, or bestowing descriptive names.

To be successful, the committee will need to create a space in which professional ornithologists’ perspectives can stand alongside beginning birders’ needs and heed input from those who have been excluded. It’s a responsibility Erica Nol, a cochair and conservation biologist at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, takes seriously. She sees changing honorifics as an opportunity to advance ornithology and to garner support from a new generation of birders. “I think having more descriptive names moves forward the mission of bird conservation generally,” Nols says. Birds, she adds, can use any help they can get.

Relinquishing honorifics is an imminently achievable step we can take out of respect for birds and the growing community of people empowered to take action as their stewards.

Birds face shifting climates, degraded habitat, and other existential perils. But the greatest threat is apathy, says Kaufman. “The gap between not knowing anything about the bird and knowing its name is huge,” he says. “Once someone knows a name, the steps to learning more about it are much smaller.” With that knowledge comes greater awareness of the dire prognosis of so many birds. “Birds as a class will survive whatever comes along. Species won’t,” Sibley says. Wilson’s Warbler is among those facing an uncertain future. Habitat loss has spurred a 60 percent population decline since 1966, and Audubon’s climate modeling projects the species will lose 76 percent of its summer range by 2080 and may cease to breed in much of the western United States. That’s too high a price for any bird to pay for our hubris.

Relinquishing honorifics does not absolve the bird community of its role in supporting social oppression. But it’s an imminently achievable step we can take out of respect for birds and the growing community of people empowered to take action as their stewards.

I have now seen four of the five birds that bear Wilson’s name. I watched the plover scuttle across a sandy beach to defend its nest. I found the snipe trying its darnedest to appear as just another clod of mud in a flooded field. My heart skipped a beat when I found the phalaropes twirling through an ephemeral pool in a synchronized dance. With luck, someday I will see the graceful storm-petrel dancing across the open sea. When I do, I hope I’ll have something more respectful and apt to call this miraculous creature than Wilson’s.

I still feel the same flutter of joy when I encounter C. pusilla on my twilight strolls. Now I call it black-capped warbler, which eases me into that moment of awe when I see the golden sprites. It’s as if I can feel their wingbeats stitching together my garden with every patch of land they traverse. It’s a single, delicate thread that tugs me toward my own connection with a web of life bigger and more ancient than I could ever comprehend. It’s this spirit of kinship that beckons so many of us to bear witness to the lives of birds. And I hope we can find that same sense of connection with each other as we come together to celebrate these birds for who they are instead of who we used to be. 

This story originally ran in the Summer 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today