Outdoors

Dozens of bird names are about to change—here’s why

A male Anna's hummingbird By Anna Medwenitsch/Shutterstock

Blackburnian warbler, Swainson’s thrush, Cooper’s hawk, and Wilson’s warbler are amongst the dozens of Canadian birds with eponymous names that do nothing to identify telltale plumage, preferred habitat, or behavioural traits of the species. Some birds are named after historical figures who helped to perpetuate racism and colonization, leaving a legacy that imposes barriers to birdwatching, “[detracting] from the focus, appreciation, or consideration of the birds themselves,” according to a statement released by the American Ornithological Society (AOS) last November.

But that’s about to change. Starting this year, the AOS, a global organization of researchers and avian conservationists, will rename dozens of species of birds with more descriptive terms. It is targeting 263 species in North and South America, amounting to about 5.5 per cent of all English bird names. A network of researchers and birding enthusiasts has been advising the organization in selecting 70 to 80 new names for Canadian and American species in 2024. For example, one suggestion for the Blackburnian warbler, a colourful migrant that breeds in habitats from the hemlock woods of central Ontario to the boreal forest of the north, is “fire-throated warbler.”

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With such action, the AOS hopes to make birding more inclusive by removing names “deemed offensive or exclusionary because of the actions of the people they are named after.” Rather than debating which names should or shouldn’t be removed, people’s names will be eliminated altogether—no more Lincoln’s sparrow, Bonaparte’s gull, Stellar’s jay, Lewis’ woodpecker, or Anna’s hummingbird (pictured).

The English Bird Names Project comes as the birding community is striving to become more diverse, highlighted by the efforts of activists such as Christian Cooper, an African American birder and author who was the subject of racial profiling in New York’s Central Park in May 2020. The high-profile incident, which was captured on video and viewed more than 40 million times on social media, led to the creation of Black Birders Week. A petition the same year called for abolishing eponymous names because “the names that these birds currently have—for example, Bachman’s sparrow—represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts and do not uphold the morals and standards the bird community should memorialize.”

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Also in 2020, the AOS took an inaugural step in renaming the McCown’s longspur, a grassland bird that breeds on the Canadian Prairies, to the thick-billed longspur. The change sought to eliminate the species’ connection to a Confederate general who defended slavery and also fought to displace Indigenous people. The AOS’ current effort came in response to widespread encouragement from recreational birders and ornithologists.

Meanwhile, researchers estimate that across North American species, 2.9 billion birds have been lost since 1970. Birds are recognized as bellwethers of the planet’s extinction crisis, just as recreational birders are driving researchers’ understandings of bird populations through data collected on citizen science platforms such as eBird. A larger, more diverse community of birders means more data; there’s hope that the changes will also bring benefits to the birds themselves.

“Birds are unique in their ability to bring people together,” wrote Ian Owens, the executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in an editorial last fall. “I strongly believe we should use this as an opportunity to get even more people interested in birds, and to demonstrate that birdwatchers are serious about breaking down barriers. In building a movement for nature, we need the biggest possible tent in terms of the people involved. Let’s be bold and embrace this opportunity to make the tent even bigger.”

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