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Stop using human names for birds - Abandon all eponyms, ye who watch birds here

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

Wilson's Warbler. Wilson's Plover. Wilson's Snipe. Wilson's Phalarope. Wilson's Storm-Petrel. I do not know who 'Wilson' is, but they are NOT impressive enough for this many species of bird to be named after them.

Wilson's Warbler, Wilson's Snipe, Wilson's Phalarope collage
This photo depicts three North American birds that use the eponym, Wilson.

What do you call a group of birds that owe their name to Wilson?

A group of owing Wilsons. (I'll leave.)


 

eponym (noun) - a person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named.

 

It has happened to all those new to birds and birdwatching. You are looking for birds for the first time while visiting the Rocky Mountains or Pacific Coast. You see a flash of blue and black. You hear a harsh call, or your skin crawls when you detect the popping sound from the movie "Predator." Then suddenly, it lands in the clearing in front of you.

A Steller's Jay looks at the camera
A stellar Steller's Jay watches you creep through the woods with your camera.

Whoa! A Stellar Jay! You make a note in your field notebook. You take a photo. You get home. You share the photo of this Stellar Jay on social media. Then it happens, the eponym guardians come out of the woodwork and tell you this is a STELLER'S Jay, named after Georg Wilhelm Steller. Who is George Wilhelm Steller? Why is the Steller's Jay named after him? Is he truly deserving? Why is this bird not just called a Stellar Jay? These are the questions we will walk through together.


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How do birds get named? | How do animals get named?

Animals are named using zoological nomenclature that follows the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. This code became standard for zoological nomenclature on January 1st, 1758, though the date is arbitrary. The two works that were published in 1758 to help lay the foundation for this code? Linnaeus's Systema Naturae, 10th Edition and Clerck's Aranei Svecici, with precedence given to Aranei Svecici. What does this mean? It means a group of scientists got together and agreed that the systems used in these works should represent the beginning of the scientific naming system.

Does it apply to our question? Yes, but we are focusing on the English bird names.


So, when a scientist "discovers" a new animal species, they follow the ICZN and must publish their findings with a proposed scientific name in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Then, if there is a problem with the proposed nomenclature, it is escalated to the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature where a ruling is provided to create an internationally acceptable solution. That is not the end of this convoluted process, however. This ruling is published as an 'Opinion' in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature.


Yikes.


Who names North American birds? | How do birds get common names?

When a scientist "discovers" a species of bird, they follow the ICZN code and must publish their findings with a scientific name in their publishing. However, when it comes to the English (or common) name for birds in North America, there is a committee that has assumed the responsibility for applying and changing the English names of birds. Who is this this committee? It is the American Ornithological Society's North American Classification Committee. According to the AOS:

The American Ornithological Society’s North American Classification Committee (NACC) has long held responsibility for arbitrating the official names of birds that occur within its area of geographic coverage. Scientific names used are in accordance with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN 1999); the committee has no discretion to modify scientific names that adhere to ICZN rules. English names for species are developed and maintained in keeping with the following guidelines, which are used when forming English names for new or recently split species and when considering proposals to change established names for previously known species.
 

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What are the guidelines for naming birds in North America?

Below, you will find the guidelines used to name or change bird names in North America. However, since the official list is a lot of information to read through, I have abbreviated it significantly. I also offer a lot of flocking opinions in bold.

  1. Stability of a bird name is more important than improving it. (Yeah, if my tires are worn out but not flat, I would not change them either.)

  2. Name changes require 2/3 approval from this self-appointed group. (Maybe someone appointed them?)

  3. Common English names are capitalized to prevent confusion. (Fair.)

    1. Example: a gray catbird meaning a catbird that is gray in coloration versus the Gray Catbird, which is also gray in coloration.

      1. Also, a bohemian waxwing might be a stray or wandering Cedar Waxwing, whereas a Bohemian Waxwing is a northern Canada breeding waxwing that wanders south in winter.

    2. However, magazines and newspapers do not follow this rule. They flick their noses at the AOS NACC.

  4. Names should be unique and not overlap. (Duh.)

  5. Names can vary in length. (Noted. Names have many words or few words.)

    1. Example: Dickcissel versus Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

  6. Epoynms add an apostrophe "s" ending, even if the eponym ends in "s." (You know, as if they possess the rights of the species...)

    1. Wilson's Warbler

  7. Names based on geography may be the adjectival or noun form of a name. However, names should be used consistently for each geographical entity.

    1. This is why it is Canada Warbler and Canada Goose, not Canada Warbler and Canadian Goose. The noun was picked first and held.

  8. Species that are vagrants to North America, are introduced, or have marginal distribution, maintain the name from those global or regional groups that named them. (This group at least does not think they should have naming power over all birds...)

  9. When species are split, the parental species name is generally not kept.

    1. Example: Solitary Vireo was split into three species >>>

      1. Blue-headed Vireo

      2. Cassin's Vireo

      3. Plumbeous Vireo

    2. Exceptions to this rule are made when there is a strong association of a name to what is referred to as the daughter species.

      1. Relative range size of the split species plays a role

      2. If a name is much more associated with one daughter species, it retains the name.

        1. Example: Canada Goose was split into Canada Goose and Cackling Goose. This left one species with the parental species name due to its strong association. Could you imagine the riots in the streets if it was changed?!

      3. If the parental name is more appropriate, one of the splits keeps the name.

  10. When a historical error was made, a parental species name may be retained. (People made mistakes in the past? And we should correct them when it is realized? That seems to break rule number one. Hmmmm.)

  11. When two or more species are lumped, the names derived follow the rules of splits unless the lump is a reversal of a historical split or one of the species is more widespread, or one of the names is most appropriate. In that case, the name returns to the original name. (I have no beef here.)

  12. If species are reorganized at a higher level due to new phylogenetic data, the name can be changed to accurately reflect its relationships with other birds. (Again, new information is allowed to upset stability here?)

  13. There are special considerations with eponyms. If this self-appointed committee believes there is sufficient harm from an eponym, enough harm that it overrides their preferred stability, it may warrant change.

    1. Stability is more important than improvement.

    2. If someone "discovered" or collected the species named after them, they have a "higher level of merit for retention." Even if they were just the first European to describe them, and not the first person.

  14. As stated in AOU (1983), “vernacular names derived from a language other than English may be adopted when these are well established and not inappropriate.” (Just to clarify, this also refers to languages that are native to the peoples of North America. But the AOS refers to even native languages as foreign languages. And WHO decides what is inappropriate?)

  15. Bird names cannot be mean or offensive. (Nothing like Dickcissel, titmouse, Wrentit, or phalarope. Wait...)


Want to read the full list of rules for naming birds? Head to the bottom of this article. Make sure your legs don't fall asleep while reading these on the can. It will take a while.


How many species of bird are named after people?

In the AOS region, there are 142 species described with eponyms. Want a list? Too bad. That is just too much.


Banish eponyms & honorarium to the inferno

This is not a popular opinion among more grey-haired birders. However, I do not care. I never think "this is the way we have always done it," is an acceptable answer. In fact, I say that is the LAZY answer. Yes, the same people who claim the need to "get r done" or "pick yourself up and get back to work" are actually lazier and less innovative. When the reason presented for resisting change is because: it has not been changed yet, it is established, or it creates too much work, I can only describe the behavior as the definition of lazy.


Why abolish eponyms?

I have five reasons to abolish eponyms that have nothing to do with political correctness culture, which the AOS has resisted thus far:

  1. Names should be beneficial to birding and new birders. The average bird-lover knows nothing of historical ornithologists and likely cares very little about them.

  2. An ornithologist is not necessarily a conservationist. Plenty of early scientists stole work (often from women), were egotistical maniacs, and destroyed animals, habitat, and people in the pursuit of self-glory.

  3. They were not first. Just because they were attributed to "discovering" a species, does not mean they were actually the first to do so. Cultures that valued spoken word over written word may have well-described many species before European explorers did. Why aren't species named after them?

  4. Descriptive names are more helpful. I just discovered a new bird species. In honor of myself, I named it Hutchinson's Leafturner. Okay, maybe you know a behavior to look for because of that name, but you have no idea what to look for. Instead, I name it the Red-headed Leafturner. Would you have more information to help identify the species? Exactly. Second example? Imagine a Bachman's Warbler. Done? Good. Now, imagine a Black-breasted Yellow Warbler. Which gave you a better image in your head of this actual species that you probably did not know?

  5. Names do not translate. This is an easy one. Get better. Improve. Adapt.

 

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The failures of AOS

The AOS claims to be leading by example on this; however, you are not a leader if you are solely reactive and not proactive. Make a sweeping change once, instead of slowly changing eponymous names as historical issues are brought to light. Unless the AOS thinks they are leading from the rear, leaders are innovative and proactive. They prevent problems before they happen. They do not cling to Peterson's or clutch their pearls as society suggests change.


Oh yeah, and whoever suggested the Magnificent Hummingbird be named after the second Duke of Rivoli... flock you. I'll give you the dukes. Or the dooks.

  • Magnificent Hummingbird split >>>

    • Rivoli's Hummingbird - AWFUL (Rename to Chiricahua Hummingbird?)

    • Talamanca Hummingbird - ACCEPTABLE

 

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Official Guidelines for Common or English Names of Birds in North America

These guidelines are pulled directly from the AOS site for English names for birds in North America.


Principles and Procedures

  1. Stability of English names. The NACC recognizes that there are substantial benefits to nomenclatural stability and that long-established English names should only be changed after careful deliberation and for good cause. As detailed in AOU (1983), NACC policy is to “retain well-established names for well-known and widely distributed species, even if the group name or a modifier is not precisely accurate, universally appropriate, or descriptively the best possible.” The NACC has long interpreted this policy as a caution against the ever-present temptation to ‘improve’ well-established English names and this remains an important principle. In practice, this means that proposals to the NACC advocating a change to a long-established English name must present a strongly compelling, well-researched, and balanced rationale.

  2. Name change procedures. The NACC process of considering an English name change is the same as for other nomenclatural topics. NACC deliberations are proposal-based, and the committee welcomes proposals from interested members of the professional and non-professional ornithological communities. Proposals from previous years, which may be useful as models, are posted online, as are general instructions for proposal preparation and submission. Proposals to change an established English name require a 2/3 vote in favor for passage, following the committee’s long-standing policy for all proposals.


General Guidelines for English Bird Names

  1. 1. Orthography. English names of birds are capitalized in keeping with standard ornithological practice. As noted by Parkes (1978), capitalization also prevents ambiguity between a species name and a description in such cases as “gray flycatcher” or “solitary sandpiper”. Diacritical marks are not used in English names. With respect to the use of hyphens, the committee follows Parkes (1978).

  2. Uniqueness. The English name of every species (and of named groups within species) should be unique both within the NACC region and, with occasional exceptions, globally.

  3. Length of names. Names may consist of a single word or more than one word. However, modifiers must be used for single word or group names that apply to more than one species. Thus, Gray Catbird is used for Dumetella carolinensis rather than Catbird because there are other species of catbird (e.g., the closely related Black Catbird Melanoptila glabrirostris and eleven distantly related species of catbirds in the family Ptilonorhynchidae).

  4. Eponyms. Eponyms, names that incorporate the name of an individual historical person, add an apostrophe “s” ending (e.g., Baird’s Sparrow, Lucy’s Warbler). Eponyms already ending in “s” also add an apostrophe “s” (e.g., Xantus’s Hummingbird).

  5. Geographical names. Names based on geography may use either the adjectival (e.g., Jamaican Woodpecker) or noun (e.g., Canada Warbler) form of a name, but names should be used consistently for each geographical entity.

  6. Species marginally distributed in North America. Names generally accepted by global or regional authorities are typically used for species that occur in our area as vagrants, introduced species, or species of otherwise marginal distribution.

 

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New and Modified Names Based on Changes to Classification


These guidelines come from the AOS NACC site.

  1. Typical species splits. In the case of true phylogenetic daughter species formerly treated as a single parental species, the usual policy is to create new names for each daughter species. For example, the split of Solitary Vireo resulted in new names for each of the three daughter species (Blue-headed, Cassin’s, and Plumbeous) rather than retention of Solitary Vireo for one of the daughters. This practice is designed to prevent confusion in the literature as to what taxonomic entity the parental name (e.g., Solitary Vireo) references. Note that this differs from the procedure used for scientific names, which mandates (via ICZN) that the name of the nominate form remain unchanged. In support of the principle of stability, the choice of new names strongly considers existing names for the daughter species in widely used older literature (e.g., Ridgway and Friedmann 1901-1946) as well as any names proposed for the new species in publications supporting the change in species limits.

    1. Exceptions. Strong association of names with particular daughter species may provide exceptions to the above policy. In these situations, a change to the English name of one daughter species would cause much more disruption than a change to that of the other daughter species. In these cases, the potential confusion of retaining the parental name for the daughter species strongly associated with the name is weighed against the potential disruption of changing the name. Overall, the goal is to maximize stability and minimize disruption to the extent possible. The committee uses various factors to assess potential differential impact, such as major differences in range size, differences in usage in the scientific and popular literature, and relative appropriateness of a name. The Committee recognizes that such judgments are subjective and that borderline cases will inevitably occur.

      1. Relative range size. In many cases, relative range size is an excellent proxy for the differential effect of a name change. When one or more new daughter species are essentially peripheral isolates or have similarly small ranges compared to the other daughter species, then the parental name is often retained for the widespread, familiar daughter species to maintain stability. For example, the English name Red-winged Blackbird was retained for the widespread species Agelaiusphoeniceus when the Cuban subspecies A.phoeniceus assimilis was elevated to species rank, and a novel English name (Red-shouldered Blackbird) was adopted only for the daughter species A. assimilis.

      2. Differential usage. In some cases, a name is much more associated with one daughter species regardless of relative range size. For example, the name Clapper Rail has been consistently associated with birds of the eastern US and Caribbean for over a century, whereas populations in South America and in the western US and Mexico were known by various other names before being grouped under the name Clapper Rail. In this case, despite the extensive range of the South American daughter species (Rallus longirostris), the name Clapper Rail was retained for eastern North American daughter species (R. crepitans) when the species was split into three, with Mangrove Rail applied to the daughter in South America and Ridgway’s Rail to that in the southwestern US and adjacent Mexico (R. obsoletus).

      3. Relative appropriateness. In some cases, a parental name is much more appropriate for one of the daughter species. In such cases, especially when no truly appropriate substitute name can be found, a parental name can be retained for that daughter. For example, in the case of the split of Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), the parental name Winter Wren was retained for the migratory eastern species, whereas the novel name Pacific Wren was created for the largely resident western species (T. pacificus). In this case the retained English name of the eastern species hiemalis also reflects its scientific name, which means “of winter” (Jobling 2010).

  2. Other species splits. In the case of a change in species limits due to incorrect previous assessment of relationships, then the parental English name may be retained for the appropriate species, especially if no other suitable name is available. This differs from 1 above in that the changes do not involve true parent-daughter splits in the phylogenetic sense but rather a correction of previous taxonomy. For example, when Galapagos Shearwater was split from Audubon’s Shearwater, the name Audubon’s was not changed because new data revealed that Galapagos was not its sister and should never have been considered conspecific with Audubon’s in the first place; therefore, the original classification, with both species treated as separate species with their original separate names, was restored.

  3. Species lumps. The committee occasionally merges two or more species into a single species. Guidelines for English names that result from lumps generally mirror those for species splits, in that a new name is generally preferred unless the exceptions for relative range size or appropriateness (as above in C.1.1 and C.1.2) apply. In practice, many lumps involve species with a great disparity in geographical range, so that in many cases the name for the more widespread former species is retained for the merged species. In a case in which the lump represents a return to species limits recognized prior to a split (i.e., in a reversal of a split), then the original name for the pre-split species is again adopted (in some cases this is the name of one of the former daughter species).

  4. Reallocation of taxa at higher taxonomic levels. In the case of reallocation of taxa at the family or genus level due to new phylogenetic data, the Committee may occasionally change the group name of a species to reflect more accurately its phylogenetic relationships. A classic example is the change of the English name of the species formerly known as Upland Plover to Upland Sandpiper (to restrict the group name “plover” to the Charadriidae). Such changes are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with assessment of the cost of loss of stability versus the benefit of increasing phylogenetic information in the name. Note that many English group names do not have phylogenetic significance even at the family level (e.g. flycatcher, warbler, finch, sparrow, tanager, grosbeak, and bunting) and are best treated as morphotypes. Thus, changes to long-standing names of this type (e.g., Scarlet Tanager) to correspond to changes in family or genus allocation generally require special circumstances. Again, the Committee recognizes that the inevitable subjectivity in these situations will create borderline situations.


Special Considerations

  1. Eponyms. At present, 142 English names of NACC bird species are eponyms. The NACC recognizes that some eponyms refer to individuals or cultures who held beliefs or engaged in actions that would be considered offensive or unethical by present-day standards. These situations create a need for criteria to evaluate whether a long-established eponym is sufficiently harmful by association to warrant its change. After substantial deliberation and consultation, the NACC has adopted the following guidelines:

    1. The NACC will change well-established eponyms only in unusual circumstances, but these situations may occur. The NACC recognizes that many individuals for whom birds are named were products of their times and cultures, and that this creates a gradient of disconnection between their actions and beliefs and our present-day mores. By itself, affiliation with a now-discredited historical movement or group is likely not sufficient for the NACC to change a long-established eponym. In contrast, the active engagement of the eponymic namesake in reprehensible events could serve as grounds for changing even long-established eponyms, especially if these actions were associated with the individual’s ornithological career. The NACC recognizes that opinions will often differ on how best to handle such situations, and the Committee strives to strike a balance that recognizes the principle of nomenclatural stability while respecting circumstances in which names should be reconsidered to reflect present-day ethical principles or to avoid ongoing harm.

    2. In evaluating potential changes to eponyms, the NACC will also consider the degree of historical association between the eponym and the species it describes. Some eponyms are purely honorific in that they refer to an individual with no close association to their namesake species or to ornithology in general. Other eponyms refer to the individual who first discovered or collected that species, or to individuals who contributed substantially to advances in our discipline. These latter names have a tighter historical and ornithological affiliation and therefore a higher level of merit for retention.

  2. Foreign-language names. As stated in AOU (1983), “vernacular names derived from a language other than English may be adopted when these are well established and not inappropriate.” For example, the endemic Hawaiian avifauna includes many species for which Hawaiian-language names are well established, and most of these have been incorporated into the AOS Checklist. However, in situations in which no historical Hawaiian-language name is known, the NACC will generally give precedence to an established English-derived name over a Hawaiian-language neologism. Similar principles apply to names derived from non-English languages elsewhere within the NACC area.

  3. Derogatory or otherwise offensive names. English bird names that clearly denigrate any group or class of people, or which would be generally considered offensive by present-day standards, may be changed for this reason alone. For example, the English name of the duck formerly known as Oldsquaw was changed to Long-tailed Duck in the 42nd Supplement (AOU 2000). The associated text of that supplement reads in part “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.” The present policy document revises this approach to acknowledge that there may be English names that cause sufficient offense to warrant change on that basis alone. The committee will consider the degree and scope of offensiveness under present-day social standards as part of its deliberations. The NACC acknowledges that some words or terms may become secondarily offensive, even when they were not originally intended as derogatory, and sometimes even when there is no direct etymological link between the original name and its now-offensive connotation.


 

Let's name stellar birds what they are. Stellar. Off with the eponyms! On with the useful adjectives!


 

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