Honorific bird names facts and figures

Here is a closer look at the eponymous (mostly honorific) names for the most familiar species in North America.

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.

This Analysis: 80 familiar species

Scott’s Oriole was named after two brothers and then, later, the Commanding General of the US Army.

Looking at Version 8.0.8 (March 12, 2021) of the ABA Checklist, 116 of the 1,123 species, or a little over 10%, are named after people. Of the 116 in the ABA area, two (Bishop’s Oo and Bachman’s Warbler) are considered extinct, one is an introduced species in Hawaii (Erckel’s Francolin), and 32 others are Codes 3, 4 or 5, meaning they occur rarely in the ABA area. The remaining 80 are all Code 1 or 2 and can be expected to be seen in the ABA area regularly. The following analyses focuses on these 80 familiar species.

The Birds

The first thing to note is that these 80 species come from a wide array of families and species groupings. As with all birds, Passerines are dominant, making up 49% of the list. Digging deeper, seabirds and Passerines with limited ranges (mostly warblers and sparrows) are over-represented—because they were described relatively late in the European discovery process, when honorific naming became more in vogue.

Naming Patterns

The AOU (American Ornithological Union, the precursor to the AOS) began proposing English names in its first checklist in 1886, but didn’t complete the effort – and the names were not universally accepted – until the 5th edition in 1957. Meanwhile, the Latin scientific names have always followed a clear rule: the Latin name is set by the first published description of a species. The “bird names for birds” movement is focused on English names only.

Eponymous naming was rare in the 18th century, limited to just four of the 80 species, all emanating from Russian/German and British field work, primarily focused on the far north. The four early birds are Steller’s Eider (1769), Blackburnian Warbler (1776), Steller’s Jay (1788), and Barrow’s Goldeneye (1789).

Then, in 1811, Alexander Wilson named a woodpecker and a nutcracker after Lewis and Clark, and honorific naming was off and running, peaking in the mid-1800s.

Eponyms for the 80 Code 1 and Code 2 species are overwhelmingly honorific. Only six are named after the describer himself (Wilson’s Warbler, Sabine’s Gull, Brandt’s Cormorant, Townsend’s Warbler, Gambel’s Quail, and Cory’s Shearwater), and it’s not clear that even all of them intended for the species to have an eponym; the Latin names for the warbler, cormorant, and shearwater suggest otherwise. Wilson himself called his warbler the Green Black-capped Flycatcher and the western subspecies went by Pileolated Warbler (coined by Pallas) as late as the 1950s.

The namers were widespread – 36 different people provided the 80 names, though four stand out. John James Audubon provided fifteen of the eponymous names, Spencer Baird and John Cassin each provided seven, and Rene Lesson four. Together, these four ornithologists were responsible for 41% (33/80) of the honorific names in this analysis. In addition, many eponymous subspecies were coined by Baird.

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Locations on the diagram only loosely correspond to the time axis due to space constraints.

The majority of the namers were connected to each other, with many naming birds after colleagues, who in turn named species after other colleagues. Lesson described Audubon’s Shearwater and Oriole; Audubon described Baird’s Sparrow; Baird described Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay; Woodhouse described Cassin’s Sparrow; Cassin described Lawrence’s Goldfinch; Lawrence described LeConte’s Thrasher.

There are no examples of a quid pro quo, where two people named birds after each other, unless you count Audubon’s Warbler, described by Townsend in 1837; Audubon returned the favor with Townsend’s Solitaire the following year. Or Coues, who christened a sandpiper after Baird in 1861; four years later, Baird named a warbler after Coues’ sister, Grace.

Despite Audubon’s dominant role in honorific naming, no Americans honored him (excepting Townsend with Audubon’s Warbler); only Lesson, a Frenchman, did.

A third of the species (27 of 80) have Latin names that do not match the honorific English name. In most instances this is because the bird was accidentally described twice. Most often, they were not originally intended to have an honorific name. A person described the species and gave a descriptive Latin name, then later another person described the same species and gave an honorific name. For example, Lichtenstein described A. aestivalis in 1823, then Audubon described it again in 1839, naming it Bachman’s Sparrow. When it was realized the two were the same species, the Latin name provided by the first publication held, but, at least in these instances, the honorific English name was also given—a kind of consolation prize to the second describer. Thus, what was called Pinewoods or Oakwoods Sparrow became Bachman’s Sparrow. It’s apparent that oversight and review of “naming and claiming” was limited.

Among the 80 species in this analysis, this double-describing happened at least 18 times. Curiously, six of these were by Audubon and account for 40% of his honorific bestowments. These are Harris’s Hawk, Bachman’s Sparrow, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Harris’s Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, and Smith’s Longspur. MacGillivray’s Warbler was intended to be Tolmie’s Warbler as described by Townsend; the other five have descriptive Latin names. There is one other double-described species that has a Latin honorific—Scott’s Oriole, Icterus parisorum, originally named after the Paris brothers. Most of the others have descriptive Latin names.

Cassin’s Auklet (P. aleutica) and Cassin’s Kingbird (T. vociferans) were first described, respectively, before Cassin was born and when Cassin was just thirteen. Clearly the original describers did not intend to honor Cassin. However, by the 1886 AOU checklist both carried the Cassin moniker, though there is no record that I could find how or why that came to be (and even a co-author of the auklet’s Birds of North American species account didn’t know the answer).

Interestingly, two species have Latin names derived from indigenous words: pipixcan of Franklin’s Gull is Nahuatl for the gull or possibly the Aztec region in Mexico; sasin of Allen’s Hummingbird is Noo-chah-nulth (Nootka) for hummingbird, a reference to when the species was lumped with Rufous Hummingbird. The gull was described twice, which is how it ended up honoring Franklin. The hummingbird was split, providing an opportunity for another name. Ironically, Allen’s, not Rufous, Hummingbird always bore the Noo-chah-nulth name which emanates from Vancouver Island.

Correlated with the timing, a clear regional pattern emerges. Because the common eastern species had already been described a century earlier, western species with honorific names outnumber eastern ones nearly ten to one. A map plotting the year of description with the core of the species’ range mimics European expansion – and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans – across the continent in the nineteenth century.

The Honorees

As for the honorees, most were naturalists, either doing field work or promoting it (70 of 80), most were Americans (55 of 80) or at least had spent some time in North America (add ten more). French collectors dominated the hummingbirds.

Only six species honor women—or girls. Blackburne is the early outlier, a British naturalist honored by one of the German ornithologists in the late 1700s. Neither spent time in North America; the type specimen comes from South America. Curiously, the eponymic title is not in the possessive form (e.g. Blackburne’s Warbler). For reasons unknown to me, the Latin name was changed from blackburniae to fusca before 1910.

During the surge of honorifics in the mid-1800s, the only females honored were friends or family, and they only got first names. Anna, age 27 when the hummingbird was named in her honor, was the wife of an ornithologist and a lady-in-waiting in the court of Emperor Napoleon III’s wife. She was described by Audubon as a “beautiful young woman, not more than twenty, extremely graceful and polite.” Virginia was the wife of William Anderson, the original collector; she was honored by Baird at Anderson’s request. Grace, also honored by Baird, was Elliot Coues’s sister. Lucy, age 13, honored by James G. Cooper, was Baird’s daughter.

We don’t return to female scientists – and last names – until the 1900s, with Scripps, who was honored in 1939, and her bird didn’t reach species status until 2012.

Most of the honorees have no obvious indications of a checkered past (66 of 80), though most of these were quite comfortable associating with, or honoring with bird names, those who were slaveholders, white supremacists, or actively involved in killing or removing Native Americans, even while these actions were hotly debated and contested at the time among whites—and universally opposed by Blacks and Native Americans. As early as 1920, the entire concept of eponymous bird names was challenged.

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Locations are intended to approximate the location of the species’ range or location of type specimen.

The dominance of western species among honorific names with morally objectionable pasts is no accident. Many of the ornithologists working in the West were attached to US military expeditions or other surveys of colonization, such as railroad surveys or the border survey after the Mexican-American War. They often served as doctors while doing naturalist work on the side. Many were likely looking for a vehicle to get into the field.

Others were active combatants, with the naturalist work coming on the side. William Clark, after the famous 1803 expedition, played a leadership role in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans for three decades. Abert served as a soldier under John Fremont’s Third Expedition and likely participated in the Sacramento River massacre of Wintu families, deemed horrific by their contemporaries. General Winfield Scott, not a naturalist in any way, was honored by Couch with an oriole precisely for his role as the Commanding General of the US Army, which included overseeing the arrest, detainment, and expulsion of the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears.

But why did they turn to honorific naming when their predecessors did not? Was it the spirit of conquest, of erasing the former occupants of the land, that gave them the presumption and bravado to name even the birds after each other? After all, mountains, rivers, valleys, and large regions of land were all being re-named and claimed as European.

White supremacy permeated the sciences. Crania Americana was published between 1839 and 1849 by Samuel Morton, a colleague of several of the naturalists. Townsend collected skulls for him. During the same era, to support the Indian Removal Act and other similar policies, the Mound Builder Myth, asserting that Native Americans were not actually native, but that North America was originally populated by Europeans, was widely taught in grade schools across the land. The land was originally European, so the story went. This theory was eventually laid to rest thanks to the efforts of John Wesley Powell, but only after most Natives were detained in concentration camps.

In short, the scientific fields were permeated with white supremacy and a sense of white ownership. Ornithological research found itself interlocked with US military endeavors and, on the Western frontier, far from Eastern progressive voices advocating abolition and respect for slaves and Natives. In this climate, honorific naming eventually ran amok, often foundering on the rocky shores of slavery and ethnic cleansing, aka manifest destiny.

It would be wrong to assume that “everyone was doing it.” In 1822, Thomas Say, honored by Charles Bonaparte with the phoebe, described Long-billed Dowitcher, Band-tailed Pigeon, Dusky Grouse, Western Kingbird, Rock Wren, Lark Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Lazuli Bunting, and Orange-crowned Warbler, giving all of them descriptive names.

Caveat: Researching the origins of species’ names is challenging, especially for those described more than once or subject to taxonomic revisions. Corrections from knowledgeable readers are much appreciated. Regardless of errors, the larger picture, the trends regarding time and place, still hold.

Note: Updated June 2, 2021 to include Blackburnian Warbler.

I’ve added some thoughts addressing the question: Should we hold people in the past accountable to present-day mores?

As a citizen of Cherokee Nation, here is my personal connection to Scott’s Oriole.

Bird names matter: Top ornithologists and organizations endorse name changes for all species named after people

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.

MacGillivray’s Warbler was named by John James Audubon after his friend, William MacGillivray, a Scottish ornithologist who never came to America. Audubon also coined its Latin specific, tolmiei, to honor William Fraser Tolmie, a Scottish employee of Hudson’s Bay Company based at Fort Nisqually during the period of Native removal. Scientific, or Latin names, are subject to international rules and are not the focus of this process.

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.

An FAQ, full list of the panelists, and a video of the Congress can be found at the AOS English Bird Names website. The direct link to the video is here.

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.

The Bird Names for Birds website includes bios of various people memorialized with bird names. For example, Townsend (of the solitaire, warbler, and storm-pretrel) collected Native skulls for his friend Samuel Morton, author of Crania Americana. The November 2020 issue of Birding magazine focused on name changes, with a strong endorsement by ABA President Jeffrey Gordon and a longer article providing historical background. It is available here for ABA members.

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.”

The AOS Congress on English Bird Names was superbly moderated by José González, providing a model for the process ahead.

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.

Does Lawrence’s Goldfinch deserve a better name?

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.

Ross’s Goose

Steller’s Eider

Stejneger’s Scoter

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Gambel’s Quail

Erckel’s Francolin

Clark’s Grebe

Vaux’s Swift

Rivoli’s Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Costa’s Hummingbird

Allen’s Hummingbird

Xantus’s Hummingbird

Ridgway’s Rail

Wilson’s Plover

Temminck’s Stint

Baird’s Sandpiper

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Kittlitz’s Murrelet

Scripps’s Murrelet

Craveri’s Murrelet

Cassin’s Auklet

Sabine’s Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

Ross’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull

Pallas’s Gull

Belcher’s Gull

Heermann’s Gull

Forster’s Tern

Salvin’s Albatross

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel

Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel

Leach’s Storm-Petrel

Townsend’s Storm-Petrel

Tristram’s Storm-Petrel

Murphy’s Petrel

Fea’s Petrel

Zino’s Petrel

Cook’s Petrel

Stejneger’s Petrel

Bulwer’s Petrel

Jouanin’s Petrel

Parkinson’s Petrel

Cory’s Shearwater

Buller’s Shearwater

Newell’s Shearwater

Bryan’s Shearwater

Audubon’s Shearwater

Brandt’s Cormorant

Cooper’s Hawk

Steller’s Sea-Eagle

Harris’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

Nutting’s Flycatcher

La Sagra’s Flycatcher

Couch’s Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Bell’s Vireo

Hutton’s Vireo

Cassin’s Vireo

Steller’s Jay

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

Clark’s Nutcracker

Bewick’s Wren

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler

Blyth’s Reed Warbler

Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler

Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler

Townsend’s Solitaire

Bicknell’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

Bendire’s Thrasher

LeConte’s Thrasher

Sprague’s Pipit

Pallas’s Rosefinch

Cassin’s Finch

Lawrence’s Goldfinch

Smith’s Longspur

McKay’s Bunting

Pallas’s Bunting

Botteri’s Sparrow

Cassin’s Sparrow

Bachman’s Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

Worthen’s Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Bell’s Sparrow

LeConte’s Sparrow

Nelson’s Sparrow

Baird’s Sparrow

Henslow’s Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Abert’s Towhee

Bullock’s Oriole

Audubon’s Oriole

Scott’s Oriole

Brewer’s Blackbird

Swainson’s Warbler

Lucy’s Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Kirtland’s Warbler

Grace’s Warbler

Townsend’s Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Morelet’s Seedeater

There are also several hybrids (e.g. Brewster’s and Lawrence’s Warblers), prominent subspecies (e.g. Thayer’s Gull and Audubon’s Warbler), and superspecies (e.g. Traill’s Flycatcher) that are used in some databases. It is not clear if these will be addressed at this time.