North American birding group to ditch names honoring racists, others

A bird flies over a river in the Waorani Community of Bameno, Ecuador, on July 30, 2023 (Galo Paguay)
A bird flies over a river in the Waorani Community of Bameno, Ecuador, on July 30, 2023 (Galo Paguay)

Out with the Bachman's Sparrow and the Couch's Kingbird -- the top authority in North American birding is ditching human names in a move to cut ties between the feathered creatures and the  misdeeds of those whose names they carry.

The American Ornithological Society, which catalogs the official English-language names for birds in North and South America, announced Wednesday that it would rename all birds honoring humans within its jurisdiction, as part of an effort to "address past wrongs and engage far more people in the enjoyment, protection, and study of birds."

Debate has been brewing for years at the organization about what to do about birds named after slave owners, racists or other people with unsavory pasts.

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

"We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves."

The AOS will begin in 2024 with a pilot program targeting 70-80 species that live in the United States, which it promises will be done in "an open, inclusive and scientifically rigorous" manner.

The move comes after a high profile reckoning in the birding community in 2020, after a white woman walking her dog in New York's Central Park falsely accused a Black bird watcher of assaulting her after an argument.

That incident happened just as the George Floyd protests were kicking off, rekindling longstanding debates and frustrations over racism in the United States.

The AOS said that the name changes are more than just superficial fixes, and are designed to help bring more people into the mostly white world of bird watching.

"Ornithologists have long grappled with historical and contemporary practices that contribute to the exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, including how birds are named," it said.

Likely on offer are birds like the Bachman's Sparrow, named after a slave owner, the Couch's Kingbird, whose eponym took part in US military action against Native Americans in Florida.

While the decision is likely to spark pushback in some quarters, it also will hopefully bring more interest in birding, advocates said -- a crucial move considering North America has lost some three billion birds since 1970, per the AOS' count.

"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 executive director Judith Scarl.