The birdwatching space has been unexpected the staging ground of a great deal of social debate and controversy in the last several years. Much of this conflict has centered around names. In early spring of 2023, a string of Audubon-affiliated organizations, including the former Portland Audubon Society, voted to change their names in order to sever their connection to John James Audubon. Audubon, though now synonymous with birds and birding, has a controversial history that includes vocal opposition to the abolition of slavery. Portland was not alone in this decision. The organization once known as “Audubon For All,” has since rebranded as the “Bird Union.” These decisions have sparked a larger discussion about the ethics and history of birdwatching and the role of social movements within the hobby.
Just a few months after Portland voted to change its name, the National Audubon Society announced their decision to retain the Audubon name thanks to its familiarity and the important conservation work that operates under the name. These two announcements came almost back to back and perfectly capture the complex and divisive decision that faces birdwatching and bird conservation groups in 2023.
Now, an arguably much more impactful change is in the works; one that may prove to be even more controversial than those previous. The American Ornithological Society is the group responsible for the standardization common names for America’s nearly 1,300 individual bird species. On November 1st, 2023, the organization announced its intent to change the common names for all American birds named after humans, beginning with 70-80 species and prioritizing those species named after figures with checkered pasts.
There are 152 North American birds named after humans and 111 South American birds. From the Scott’s Oriole to the Bewick’s Wren to the Steller’s Jay, dozens upon dozens of backyard birds may receive new standard common names in the near future. It is worth noting that scientific names will not change, even in cases where the scientific name also includes references to a historical figure. The Bewick’s Wren is a good example of this. Even if Bewick is removed from the common name, its scientific name, Thryomanes bewickii, will not change.
The effort to rename the first 70-80 birds will begin in 2024. It is not known at this time what birds will be chosen for the initial rollout. There will likely be an extended period of transition during which birders will be introduced to the new common names for their familiar backyard visitors.
While some see this change as a victory, others argue that obscuring the names of potentially hundreds of birds is likely to damage awareness and education. For an effort that focuses so heavily on inclusivity, rendering older field guides inaccurate or obsolete creates barriers to entry for new and old birders alike. Furthermore, unpleasant as it may be, many of the named figures associated with these birds are important names in the history of conservation, ornithology, and naturalism. Erasing them will obscure vital historical information.
As the work of evaluating and renaming these birds begins for the American Ornithological Society, birders are left to contend with the good and bad that this significant change is bound to bring.
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