The Great Renaming

Written By: Heather Weber-Langvardt

It seems an impossible thing to ignore if you’re at all involved in the bird world; the AOS (American Ornithological Society) has committed to changing all English-language names of birds that are named directly after people (eponyms). Birds that are named after places, like Canada Jays and Carolina Chickadees will remain the same.

This decision is going to mean the initial change of around 80 common bird names across the US and Canada! Because of the way the West was settled and discoveries were made a majority of those name changes will affect our Western birds.

Steller's Jay

Steller’s Jay

What does that mean for those of us who love the birds? The answer could vary; for someone like me it only means I will have some new bird names to remember. I’ll have to re-learn some beloved species. I know that personally the Steller’s Jay, a bird that was an everyday visitor to my home growing up in Black Forest, will be a difficult one to adjust to – I still forget that Grey Jays, who I used to hike with in the mountains, are now Canada Jays. But to me they were always just names. I enjoyed the birds, like most birders I wanted to know their names but I watched birds for the birds. I never really considered the eponyms connected to those birds, for good or bad. So it ends up just being a small change, albeit one that will take some time to get used to! To others, it could mean the removal of a barrier to birding, whether that barrier is caused by the dislike for the eponym or simply in understanding the birds themselves. Some others are completely against the changes. But regardless of the opinions, bird names change all of the time; species are split and lumped together, and our understanding of things in the bird world are constantly evolving and changing. Just like nature itself!

I think that the decision to remove all eponyms and go to more descriptive names is a smart move. It removes the decision of whether someone is “worthy” of having a bird named after them or not and removes any other controversy without needing to judge each case. Although I may initially miss Steller’s Jays, I like the move to more descriptive names, it feels like a move that will make birding easier for newcomers. For example, the name Yellow-Rumped Warbler or Red-Winged Black Bird tells you exactly what that bird is and exactly what to look for, but if it was called a Heather’s Warbler or Weber’s Blackbird you wouldn’t have any context of what that bird would be.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler & Red-winged Blackbird

Besides, what a treat to get to honor something about the bird in its name! There is also the chance to get some beautiful and poetic names, like the Shining Sunbeam in South America!

Shining Sunbeam – A Hummingbird found in the cloud forests of South America. Photo courtesy of Jory Teltser and the Macaulay Library

The AOS has said that they are also committed to actively involving the public in the process of selecting new English bird names. That’s an exciting prospect, that those of us who watch and love these birds could have a say in the future of their names!

The name change is slated to take place over the next few years and information about the public comments will come out in the following days.

What do you think of the changes to the names and what are some of your choices for new names for our soon-to-be-renamed birds?

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