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Audubon Society Accepts Changes to Bird Names but not Society Name

Bird Names Become Political

Baltimore Oriole — Skyler Ewing on Pexels

The American Ornithological Society recently announced that all bird names will now be changed to names that are either descriptive of the bird itself or its ecology. Birds that are named for people will have their names changed. The Steller’s jay, for example, could become the black-crested jay.

This change could seem like it is not such a big deal. Still, it becomes a huge deal when one considers the history of colonialism and racism and other discriminatory practices bird names can represent. If one considers the zealotry of birders, the stakes increase.

We add, of course, the current politics and especially the publicity around the Christian Cooper incident, the black birdwatcher who faced a false accusation by a white woman in Central Park. Christian Cooper now has a birding show on National Geographic.

Just as Confederate statues and places named after southern heroes who are maybe not heroes by today’s standards, bird names are up for revision.

The oldsquaw duck, for example, is now more often known as the long-tailed duck, with that name change occurring in 2000.

A variety of problems will arise. Very amateur birders like me, particularly birders of an aging vintage, may remember the oldsquaw duck more easily than long-tailed duck, because of the former’s more unique and disparaged name and story. Or, we may have long been proud of distinguishing Lincoln’s sparrow from a song sparrow and now will have to learn a new name for Lincoln’s sparrow, even if the bird itself is hard to differentiate. Old dog, new tricks.

When I went on a boating tour in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, I learned about Steller’s seals, Steller’s jays, and also Steller’s sea eagle, and Steller’s eider, a duck. Georg Wilhelm Steller was a naturalist on the Vitus Bering expedition and described a variety of birds and animals that were then named after him. Bering, of course, left the Sea as his namesake from the mid-18th century on.

The Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles are both named after persons. The Baltimore Orioles are also a baseball team, and I am sure would not like to lose their name, which seems to be place-named as much for the city as the bird. Maryland takes pride in its team and its name.

The city is named for Lord Baltimore, as is the bird. Lord Baltimore had orange and black heraldry.

Discovering Birds, Naming Birds, Identifying Birds

The Bullocks were father and son who named the bird when they identified it in Mexico in the mid-19th century, but the problem with discovering birds is that the indigenous peoples knew about them all along, and had perfectly good names for the orange and black birds. It was only when the Europeans came along and named things that they were, in the written record, “discovered.”

The Bullock’s and Baltimore orioles were combined into the designation northern oriole, and they may occasionally cross-breed when nesting territories overlap. This division is likely to prevail once more. We will need new names, again, unless Northern Oriole to cover both birds is re-established as the convenient name, despite the Ornithological Society’s assertion that scientific data prevails.

I do remember Baltimore orioles very fondly; they nested in a tree in my neighbor’s yard, and their beautiful song filled the air each spring. Especially now that I have moved to the West Coast, they are one of the bird varieties I no longer see and miss most.

James Audubon, who painted the birds of North America and whom the famous Bird Society is named for, was himself a slave owner. The Audubon Society declined to change its name after a discussion by its board of directors.

I have been an advocate for letting history be, as we are awash with the remnants in our culture of the impacts of colonialism, empire-building, slavery, misogyny, and a list of ills. However, the longer the conversation goes on, the more confused I become as to the weight of history vs. the weight of getting it better than the inheritance of history.

I don’t know whether a Baltimore oriole still weaves a nest in my neighbor’s tree. I used to marvel at the hanging basket in a limb, the nestlings that hatched each year, and the return to the same maple each year. I suspect that it was a different pair, perhaps offspring since I watched their return over fifteen years.

The birds will still rear a brood of chicks, in their shaded nest, and still rob the strawberry patch. They are not conscious of their English name, or names, the arguments, the standings of the baseball team, or the recent port issues of their namesake city.

They bring joy with their bright colors and melodious notes.

It’s for the American Ornithological Society and all the rest to argue out the naming.

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  1. SingingFrogPress
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    I do love this essay Sharon, thanks for writing about the coming bird name changes, which I saw some news of a while back, but you bring out all the lovely complications of making changes like this to reflect more contemporary understandings of how to avoid disrespecting groups of people and promoting bias.

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