On Nov. 1, the American Ornithological Society announced that it would be renaming all the birds under its purview that are currently named for human beings. The birds’ new names will reflect the species’ appearance or habitat — some trait associated with the actual bird, in other words, and not with the colonial explorer who first identified it.
“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today, said Colleen Handel, the president of the society, in a statement. “We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves.” The process of choosing new names will begin next year.
This change, which will affect some 150 North American birds, has been a long time coming. Ornithologists and amateur birders alike have long wrestled with the historical nature of bird names bestowed by early collectors. The norms of that era were themselves problematic, as explorers tromped across an already occupied landscape, killing, collecting and naming after themselves thousands of animals and plants that had already been given human names by people who lived more ecologically responsible lives.
Some of the birds — not all, it’s important to note, but some — were named for people who held views considered repugnant today. John James Audubon, for whom the Audubon’s shearwater is named, was an unrepentant slaveholder who opposed emancipation. Gen. Winfield Scott, for whom the Scott’s oriole is named, led the forced eviction of the Cherokee along what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
The idea that some of the most beautiful birds in North America still carry those ugly names is objectionable to a lot of us, a scar from the past still enshrined in the present like a Confederate statue installed in a town square or a robber baron’s name gracing a university building. Such monuments represent history, it’s true, and history should not be forgotten. But neither should it be celebrated wholesale, especially when the bigotries and injustices of the past are too often on clear display in our own age.
These long-simmering objections finally came to a boil in 2020 when a white woman in Central Park lied to the police, claiming that a Black birder named Christian Cooper had threatened her. What he had actually done was politely ask her to leash her dog, as park rules require. Her interactions with the dog were frightening the birds in that normally quiet, wooded part of the park.
The resulting uproar forced white birders to recognize the unique challenges and assumptions that people of color have always faced when entering the natural world: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever,” wrote the wildlife ecologist, poet and 2022 MacArthur Fellow J. Drew Lanham in “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” That essay appeared in 2013.
By 2020, concerned birders had launched an initiative called Bird Names for Birds, partly in response to the Central Park incident, to urge ornithological groups to reconsider names that permanently enshrine a colonial, racist or misogynistic history in the identification of birds. Such efforts have not been entirely successful. Earlier this year, after a concerted campaign to divest the National Audubon Society of its slaveholding namesake, the conservation organization’s board of directors voted to keep the name.
The American Ornithological Association has taken a different approach to the issue. Its decision to change the names of all birds named for human beings — and not simply birds named for enslavers, say, or Confederate generals, or people directly responsible for the persecution and exploitation of Indigenous Americans — addresses the question much more comprehensively. Any bird named for a human being will get a new name, whether that person was a racist or not.
Though this change didn’t prevent outrage from erupting online in certain predictable quarters, the decision is wonderfully pragmatic. The impulse to address overt white supremacy in the history of birding is an admirable one, but it does invite an everlasting and irresolvable debate. How will we decide which ornithologists and explorers from the past held reprehensible views? Who gets to define reprehensible? What happens when that definition inevitably expands, or simply changes?
Better to avoid the rancor inherent in all such debates and instead confront the problematic nature of naming itself.
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare’s Juliet famously says, but is she right? I don’t think she’s right. I don’t think even Shakespeare thinks she’s right. These are the words of a teenager in love, and Shakespeare knew better than most that neither teenagers nor people in love are prone to clear thinking.
Names tell us something about who we are, where we come from, how we signify in the larger world. Names carry social and cultural resonances. For these and any number of other reasons, a rose by any other name doesn’t necessarily smell as sweet. We bend to a rose expecting sweetness, and so sweetness is what we tend to find.
But where wildlife is concerned, perhaps most troubling of all is the claiming involved in any act of naming. The book of Genesis lays out this relationship very clearly, establishing human dominion over creation and giving the first man naming rights to it all: “Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”
Other early biblical texts, including some in Genesis, articulate a healthier relationship between human beings and the other-than-human world, charging humanity to care for and protect creation. But that insistence on dominion, on naming the animals, on claiming the earth for our own uses, is what has persisted most powerfully in this country through the ages. It is arguably the root cause of our troubles today. Instead of tending the plants and animals that share our planet, we have burned the planet down. In my lifetime alone,