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.

whit! Sorting out the call notes of western Empidonax flycatchers

After a flurry of migrant Empidonax flycatchers this April in California, a number of us engaged in a discussion about their whit! call notes. Specifically, could we tell Willow from Dusky from Gray just by the whit? Personally, I’m not there yet. I usually only hear them a few times a year, which is insufficient experience, and I suspect there’s individual variation as well as the tricks that wind, humidity, and distance play on sound. But what about analyzing their sonograms with a good recording?

I looked at the very best on-line recordings from the Macaulay Library (collected via eBird, and there’s a collection of the best ones at Peterson Bird Sounds) and from xeno-canto. (Warning: the horizontal axis is different between their sonograms. Xeno-canto sonograms fit about two seconds in the space where Macaulay fits one second of recording, thus compressing the sonogram. Here, I stretched the xeno-canto sonograms horizontally to adjust for that.)

Willow whits

Dusky whits

Gray whits

It appears that Willow, with a good recording, is distinctive, with up to three harmonic tones and that downward slope after the upward slow. To the ear, the Willow whit is softer and sweeter than the others. Dusky and Gray, on the other hand, are both dry sharp whits, and virtually indistinguishable on the sonograms. Gray is more likely to go up to 10 kHz or higher, and that echo line on the first Gray sonogram was consistent on all the calls, at least for that individual recording. For the record, Least was similar to Dusky and Gray, although the triangular dark shadow to the right of the main call tended to be thicker and larger.

iPhone whit

iPhone recording

To the right is a typical iPhone recording, probably a Dusky. Based only on this sonogram, just a shadow of the good ones above, it could be any of the species. The take-home lesson is that one could probably diagnostically identify a Willow whit from a sonogram with a very good recording. The Dusky and Gray whits are too close to call.

Our discussion also focused on spring migration timing and incorporated Hammond’s (as many of these birds are silent). Again, I turned to eBird for some trends.

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whit map

Spring migration for western Empids. These maps are based on 2017-18 data. I excluded a few outliers in each case. Nevertheless, these dates represent the earliest arrivals. Most birds were a week later than the dates shown.

The results are that Hammond’s is the earliest, followed by Gray and then Dusky. For all three, however, there was a pulse of records during the last week of April. Willow is a full month behind the other two. In fact, even in southern Arizona there were very few Willow records before May 10.

Kaufmann empidsMuch has been written about Empid identification. Here’s a link to the Rowland 2009 article in Birding. My personal favorite is the chapter in Kenn Kaufmann’s Advanced Birding. The diagram at left is from the old version; the new one is even better, showing variations within species.

For the Hammond’s/Dusky challenge in spring, I put together the diagram below. These identifications were confirmed by calling birds, which are easily separated (Hammond’s says peep rather than whit).

HammondsDusky

Finally, if you’re still confused, there’s this infamous meme:

empid meme

Two of the nation’s top birding spots threatened by the wall

Of the top 20 birding sites in the entire United States, based on the number of species reported on eBird, six of them are in south Texas. Two of them, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, are threatened by Trump’s proposed wall.

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RG border map

The map above, taken from an excellent article illustrating all of the natural resources at risk from California to Texas, includes the bird totals for the eBird hotspots associated with the at-risk parks and wildlife refuges. The wall is often constructed hundreds of yards north of the actual border (the Rio Grande River). It typically includes a swath of cleared land on each side of it.  At Bentsen and Santa Ana, the wall threatens to destroy critical remaining habitat and strand the parks in “no-man’s land”, preventing public access. Dozens of articles have been written regarding the impacts to everything from butterflies to ocelots.

Sabal Palm is unique, in that the natural area is south of the wall. Visitors pass thru the wall in order to visit the park. However, there is no guarantee this arrangement will be made at other sites. Should public access be denied at Bentsen, the park could revert back to the Bentsen family per a historical agreement. The national wildlife refuges are especially at risk. As they are already federal properties, the Administration doesn’t have to deal with acquiring private property. Thus, they are the easiest places to build.

 

 

The decline of Mountain Plovers in two graphs

I live in Yolo County, California, near Sacramento, where Mountain Plovers used to be an annual winter specialty. Searching for “dirt clods with legs”, we used to be able to find dozens of these unique shorebirds, sometimes over a hundred.

Those days are over. They are now “irregular”, meaning we don’t find them every year. We’ve struck out five of the last eleven years. Before that, we averaged a high count of 72 individuals. The first graph, built from records in the Yolo Audubon Society newsletter, emails to the Central Valley Birds listserv, and eBird, shows the high count each winter in Yolo County.

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MOPL Yolo

This second graph backs out a bit in space and time, looking at all Mountain Plovers worldwide, starting in 1980. They are a bird of the steppe, breeding mostly on the Great Plains between the Rockies and the flat lands, between the Canadian and Mexican borders. They winter in open country in a vast arc west and south of there, mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

MOPL cbc

All the Christmas Bird Counts nationwide, plus Mexico, averaged 728 birds per count thru 1994, but have never hit that mark since. Fewer than 200 individuals have been enumerated six of the last ten years. Adjusted for party hours, the graph basically looks the same.