The commitment of the American Ornithological Society (AOS) to change the “offensive” names of some birds aims to rename mainly those species that were named after specific people, but the changes will also see names that are offensive and “non-inclusive” in some way. The first wave will concern species found in the United States and Canada, the organization writes in a recent statement.
“We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific approach that focuses attention on the unique qualities and beauty of the birds themselves. Anyone who likes and cares about birds should be free to enjoy and study them — and birds need our help now more than ever,” Fox News quoted AOS President Colleen Handel as saying.
AOS director Judith Scarlová also agrees with her: “As scientists, we try to eliminate prejudices in science. But there used to be a bias in how birds were named and who could have a species named in their honor,” he claims, adding that naming conventions originated in the 19th century and are no longer relevant today because they were influenced by “racism and misogyny.”
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According to The Washington Post, which reported on the beginning of this initiative two years ago, ornithologists are bothered by names such as Audubon’s (dark-backed) petrel, named after John James Audubon, who was one of the great American ornithologists and naturalists.
The Audubon National Society for the Protection of Birds is also named after him, but people from that organization also claim that he also “enslaved blacks and wrote critically about emancipation.” He was also supposed to steal human remains from which his colleague deduced that whites were superior to other races.
It is similar with two species that are named in English after the naturalist John Kirk Townsend. About him, The Washington Post reported some time ago that he stole the skulls of the indigenous people to support the theory of their racial inferiority.
All white people mind
Another man to whom the indignation of ornithologists is directed is, for example, the Lutheran pastor and naturalist John Bachman, who allegedly spoke in one of his speeches about the intellectual superiority of whites and claimed that the institution of slavery is based on the Holy Scriptures.
However, among ornithologists there are also people who do not mind only specific people, but any connection with white people. “White people are credited with discovering birds, they named them after other white people, and they still keep those names,” Jordan Rutter of Bird Names for Birds, another initiative fighting to rename a wide range of bird species, said back in 2021.
And Erica Nolová, chairperson of the Committee for English Bird Names within the AOS, draws attention to the fact that naming species after specific people also conveys ownership. “The names are based on a certain time and social situation, and the overwhelming majority are white men. There are only a few women here, and in addition, only their first names were used in the names,” she continued. However, she added that her main goal is to increase interest in birds and their observation.
But whatever the renaming of the “problematic” bird species turns out to be, it will only concern the English names. The scientific community will continue to use globally uniform Latin binomial names, although it can be assumed that, for example, in the case of a species Setophaga townsendi American ornithologists will strive for change at this level as well.