If you had the opportunity to name the species pictured above what would you call it? Something descriptive about its plumage or habitat preferences, or maybe a notable behavior?
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”. Read the full AOS Council statement announcing these commitments and go inside the AOS recommendation to change eponymous bird names on All About Birds.
What does this decision mean for eBird, Merlin, Birds of the World, Macaulay Library, and other Cornell Lab projects?
The taxonomy used by projects at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the eBird/Clements Taxonomy, is a consensus taxonomy that has generally deferred to regional authorities for classification and nomenclature. For species occurring within the Americas, the eBird/Clements Taxonomy has followed the AOS’s Checklist of North and Middle American Birds and Checklist of South American Birds.
When these regional checklists are revised by their respective committees, they generally change in the eBird/Clements taxonomy as well, with minor exceptions (e.g., if the recommendations of two committees differ). We incorporate these revisions once per year during our annual Taxonomy Update. Therefore, no changes will be made to English common names in the eBird database until October 2024 at the very earliest.
This announcement only pertains to the English common names of eponymous birds (birds named after people) occurring primarily within the AOS’s geographic purview. English names in other regions will continue to be determined in consultation with partner organizations in those regions. If you use one of eBird’s more than 95 regional language variations, you may not notice any change at all. Likewise, scientific names are not impacted by this decision.
There are still many details to work out. A timeline has not been set, nor have any new names been decided. The AOS will next be launching a pilot to “work out the logistics of undertaking this significant effort.” Our teams at the Cornell Lab are supportive of this process and optimistic that it will result in a net benefit to birding over time. We feel that giving birds names that describe and honor the organism itself has the potential to make birding accessible to more people.
Nevertheless, we acknowledge the tremendous impact of this decision in terms of both positive opportunities and the potential challenges. Taxonomic institutions routinely rename birds for scientific reasons, but never before have so many names been slated to start the process of revision at once. Changes of this magnitude are often hard; learning new bird names itself can be difficult and confusing.
Fortunately, our technology platforms today make it easier to learn and use new bird names than ever before. eBird and Merlin are committed to leveraging our existing tools and resources, especially multiple variations of common names, to helping birders in the AOS region adapt to these changes. (We were able to adjust from Gray Jay to Canada Jay, after all!) We are excited for the opportunity to engage a large and diverse community of voices to generate bird names that are easier to learn, remember, and identify with.
- AOS English Bird Names Project
- Inside the AOS Recommendation to Change Common Bird Names
- “What’s in a Name?“—Ian Owens, Cornell Lab of Ornithology executive director
- Behind the Scenes with the Ad Hoc English Bird Names Committee
- Virtual Community Congress on English Bird Names and forum summary by Gus Axelson, Living Bird editor