Names for the Birds

Female Belted Kingfisher featured here on September 29

In response to my recent post about the “Queenfisher” — a female Belted Kingfisher — sharp-eyed reader Peter Rauch referred me to advocates of a movement to update the common names of many birds in line with current ideas of equity. This has to do not only with gender-locked names but also names that act as “verbal statues” honoring individuals with difficult life stories, to say the least.

Gender-locked names are a glaring example. A BirdNote podcast from February 2015 points out that many animals other than birds have “queen” names. But the bird name world is exclusively male:

“There’s a King Vulture, a King Eider, 89 species of kingfishers, 11 kingbirds, 3 tiny kinglets—at least 115 birds across the world with the word “king” in their name. And no queens: 10,000 bird species—and not one ‘queenfisher’ or ‘queenlet.’”

The authors conjecture that this skewed gender labeling came about because “nearly all the early explorers and naturalists who named birds were men.”

Logo of the Bird Names for Birds group

Not just men but often men whose actions in our eyes deserve disgrace rather than honor. Lifelong birder Jordan Rutter and others have dug into the history of men whose names identify birds, and it’s not a pretty sight. There’s Bachman’s Sparrow: John Bachman was a vehement defender of slavery and opponent of abolition. There’s Townsend’s Warbler. Townsend made a practice of desecrating the graves of Native Americans. And there’s Audubon’s Oriole. John James Audubon bought and sold slaves and decapitated fallen Mexican soldiers, not to mention that in order to paint his birds, he first shot them. Rutter founded a group called “Bird Names for Birds” to advocate removal of all human names from the common names of birds, regardless of those humans’ historic roles.

There are about 150 bird species whose common English-language names include the names of humans — all white, and almost all men. Rutter’s group advocates renaming them to point toward something descriptive about the bird. For example, they have succeeded in getting McCown’s Longspur renamed to Thick-billed Longspur. McCown was a Confederate soldier. Renaming the bird was like removing a Confederate statue, and Rutter has run into the same pushback. There’s a committee that decides on English-language common names. Details are on the group’s website.

Decades ago, I graduated from Boalt Hall School of Law. Recent research into Mr. Boalt revealed that he was a vicious anti-Chinese racist. Today my alma mater is known as Berkeley Law. I feel good about that change. I don’t see why similar progress can’t be achieved in the nomenclature of birds.

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