The Eastern Towhee, a bird of scrub and thickets, is a common resident in the southeast United States. One subspecies migrates north in summer.
They are a prime example of a species that is considered “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but “High Risk” in National Audubon’s assessment of birds under climate change. In their 3.0 C scenario, they predict it would lose 83% of its current breeding range, while gaining only 23%.
These projections are consistent with recent literature showing poleward shifts of species ranges– of the northern edge of their range, of the southern edge, and of their range’s geographic center. The predictions for Eastern Towhee are among the most dramatic.
Recent research also suggests that non-migratory and short-distance migrants are more adaptable to climate change than are long-distance migrants, and more able to shift their ranges. Indeed, we are already seeing that with Eastern Towhee. The Audubon projections appear to be in progress.
Based on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data, the Eastern Towhee breeding population in Florida has declined over 50% since the late 1990s. The timing of this is consistent with worldwide ecological shifts which began in the mid-1980s.
The white-eyed subspecies appears to be already in trouble. eBirders in Florida in May and June are encountering the species half as often as they were just six years earlier.
Not all range shifts are due to climate. As a scrub specialist, the Eastern Towhee prefers habitat that is in the act of regrowth, such as after a fire or being cleared. But they don’t want a forest either. To quote the Birds of the World species account for Eastern Towhee: “As farmland is abandoned, successional changes produce suitable midseral habitats that towhees favor, and their numbers increase. But, successional time is against towhees, and their numbers decrease as seres age.” That may be the explanation for the Georgia data (orange dots), which show a decline in the late 60s and early 70s, possibly due to forest growth or land clearance for development, and then a leveling off.
As the climate warms, many species are expanding north and/or declining in the southern part of their range. But these need not happen simultaneously. Opportunities for suitable habitat may open doors in the north, and doors may close in the south, at different times. There is evidence of Eastern Towhee expansion in Minnesota, but look at the vertical axis; it does not compare with the losses in Florida.
In Florida, the white-eyed subspecies faces extinction based on National Audubon’s 1.5C scenario. They appear to have declined dramatically in the past two decades.
At the American Ornithological Society (AOS) Congress on English Bird Names on April 16, 2021, a host of prominent organizations and individuals endorsed “bird names for birds”, a widespread effort to rename eponymous or honorific species names with more descriptive names, focusing on their physical or ecological attributes. For example, Wilson’s Warbler could become Black-capped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire might become Northern or Juniper Solitaire, and Kittlitz’s Murrelet would probably be re-named Glacier Murrelet.
While specific new names have not yet been chosen, representatives of the American Birding Association (ABA), National Audubon Society, as well as David Sibley and Kenn Kaufmann, all heartily endorsed developing a process to make the changes, noting that new names would engage a larger audience, contribute to greater equity and inclusivity among birders and the interested public, and could aid in public communication and conservation efforts.
The effort has grown out of the national reckoning on racial equality in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Movements to change names are underway with regard to parks, mountains, streets, other wildlife, and even rock-climbing routes. Current names generally go back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during European expansion across North America and recall an era of conquest, when species and landforms were “discovered” – and some named after the individual who documented them, or after their friends and colleagues.
Sibley commented that, the more he learns about the names, “the more they cast a shadow over the bird” and “the name doesn’t mean just the bird anymore. They have baggage.” Out of respect for people and the birds, they “should not have to carry a reminder of our own fraught history.” Choosing between stability and respect, Sibley stated “I choose respect.”
Name changes over social justice concerns began last year when McCown’s Longpsur was changed to Thick-billed Longspur, after widespread outcry because McCown was a Confederate general and involved in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. A proposal in 2018 for that name change was roundly rejected.
Name changes for these reasons are not new; most birders can probably recall the switch from Oldsquaw to Long-tailed Duck in 2000. At that time, the American Ornithologists’ Union, the precursor to the AOS, asserted that the name change was not for reasons of “political correctness” but merely to conform with usage elsewhere.
Bird Names for Birds, a group of interested birders, was instrumental in reaching out to the larger organizations to participate in the congress. In their words, “Eponyms (a person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named) and honorific common bird names (a name given to something in honor of a person) are problematic because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it. 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.” They describe such names as “verbal statues” that should be removed.
Jordan Rutter of Bird Names for Birds argued that, when reaching out to the public to protect an endangered sparrow, Bachman’s Sparrow has much less appeal than an alternative name rooted in local ecology that the public could identify with. Kaufmann pointed out that Bachmann was a pro-slavery white supremacist and that the species was formerly known as the Pinewoods Sparrow.
In the AOS’s own language, “The Community Congress opens the discussion on the complex issues around eponymous English Bird Names…. The specific aim of the Community Congress is to provide an opportunity for a broad range of stakeholders from the birding and ornithological community to share their viewpoints, including challenges and opportunities from their perspectives, to best inform future next steps to address the issue of naming birds after people.”
Keepers of various ornithological databases also participated in the Congress, including representatives for eBird, Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, and the Bird Banding Laboratory. While noting potential complications with name changes (and changes in four-letter banding codes), they all agreed the hurdles were not insurmountable. Indeed, name changes, as well as taxonomic lumps and splits, occur every year, with name changes being the simplest of the three to address in data management. eBird currently supports bird names in 47 languages, including 14 different versions of English. Where Americans see Black-bellied Plover, Brits see Grey Plover.
Marshall Iliff of eBird pointed out that the effort is also an opportunity to clean up old taxonomic messes, pointing out that Audubon’s Shearwater has been used for eleven different combinations of nine different taxa. In this case, he said, fresh names for specific taxa will provide clarity, not confusion. He embraced a worldwide effort to “dig into the essence of each species” to “find inspired and appropriate names.”
For now, the effort will be limited to primary eponymous English bird names. The effort will not include secondary names (e.g., American Crow, named after the continent, which was named after Amerigo Vespucci). Other problematic names, such as Flesh-footed Shearwater for a bird with pink feet, were not discussed.
Many suggested using Native names for species, though most stated this could be challenging because 1) names from Native languages may have been lost, or 2) most bird species’ ranges span multiple historic aboriginal territories and languages, creating a conundrum over which indigenous word to use. The exception to this is Hawaii, where indigenous names are already in widespread use. Among mammals, moose, raccoon, and skunk are all derived from Algonquian.
Looking at Version 8.0.8 (March 12, 2021) of the ABA Checklist, 115 of the 1,123 species, or a little over 10%, are named after people. Of these, 2 (Bishop’s Oo and Bachman’s Warbler) are considered extinct, and 20 others are Code 4 or 5, meaning they occur extremely rarely in the ABA area (though three of these are regular in Mexico, within the AOS area). The remaining 93 are all Code 1, 2, or 3, and can be expected to be seen in the ABA area regularly.
Here are the 113 non-extinct species from the ABA Checklist.