Common names for birds help us to appreciate their special, singular qualities. A name can increase our understanding of a species (for example, the Snail Kite is named for its diet of almost exclusively snails) and even spark our imagination (consider Shining Sunbeam, Rainbow Starfrontlet, Spectacled Spiderhunter, or Firewood-gatherer). In contrast, a common name that doesn’t describe a bird well can make it harder to identify and remember. Some bird names can even cause unintended harm and exclusion by carrying associations with historic injustices.
These are several of the reasons given by the American Ornithological Society (AOS)—the organization responsible for maintaining the Checklist of North American Birds—as part of its recently-announced commitment to “changing all English-language names of birds within its geographic jurisdiction that are named directly after people (eponyms), along with other names deemed offensive and exclusionary, focusing first on those species that occur primarily within the U.S. or Canada. Scientific names will not be changed as part of this initiative.
The AOS will establish a new committee to oversee the assignment of all English common names within its geographic purview. The committee will include individuals whose expertise represents the social sciences, communications, ornithology, and taxonomy. Additionally, the AOS has committed to actively involving the public in the process of selecting new names, which means that, over the next few years, you’ll likely have a chance to weigh in.
The timing is still to be determined. The AOS will first develop a pilot process with a small number of species, then address changes on a rolling time frame.