A small brown and biege bird sitting on the ground among brown grass.

The thick-billed longspur has long been a point of contention, having previously been named after the Confederate general John p. McCown ©Kerry Hargrove/Shutterstock

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Offensive and inaccurate bird names should be changed, study says

In recent years there has a growing shift within the birding community to change the common English names of birds that are considered offensive or inaccurate.

A new paper has looked at this movement, particularly within South Africa and North America, reviewing key examples and providing recommendations about how these names should be dealt with.  

Many species - particularly those popular with the general public, such as birds - have two or more names. The first is the scientific name, used globally so that no matter where someone is in the world they can always refer to the same species.

The other is the common name, used more generally and colloquially - this can also vary geographically, meaning the species can have more than one common name. For example, Bubo scandiacus is the scientific name for the bird commonly known as the snowy owl, white owl or Arctic owl.

Unlike with official scientific names, which are overseen by a single organisation to make sure that all species names are consistent, common names are generally governed by smaller committees more specific to certain countries or continents.

Common names tend to be used by the general public and local groups, and so often reflect cultural and societal differences.

However, some common names cause offense or upset, or are simply inaccurate. How these smaller committees deal with changing these names, which have often been used for over a century, is a discussion that's been brought to the fore in recent years. In North America particularly, there has historically been resistance from the naming committee to change common bird names. 

Most notable is the case of McCown's longspur, a small species of songbird that was named after a Confederate American Civil War general who was complicit in genocide. For years, the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society resisted suggestions to change the name to thick-billed longspur - until in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and with pressure from Black Birder's Week, they conceded.

Dr Alex Bond, Senior Curator in Charge of Birds at the Museum, has examined how committees could address these changes in common names, and has published his findings in the journal Ibis.

A black and white patterned duck, with two long black tail feathers, floats on the water.

The name of the long-tailed duck was changed 20 years ago, having previously been named after an offensive term for Indigenous women ©Wolfgang Wander/Wikimedia Commons

The study focussed on examples of birds from regions with a history of colonisation, including South Africa and North America.

'The arguments for not changing common names are often for stability, in that a species has always had that name,' says Alex. 'But we managed well enough with changing the name of Clangula hyemalis to long-tailed duck 20 years ago, so I think we can handle it.

'Also, the scientific names are there for stability.'

In response to these conversations, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) says, 'Bird names are the entry point to accessing all of the information that has been gathered over many decades of research on bird species, information that is key to broader understanding, enjoyment, and conservation of those species by the ornithological and birding communities.

'At the same time, AOS recognizes that, due to their harmful nature, some English bird names can potentially be a barrier to participation in ornithology and the broader enjoyment of birds. We are committed to changing harmful and exclusionary names that limit that participation.'

But there is more nuance when it comes to the common bird names than is often realised.

Inaccurate, offensive or inappropriate

When it comes to changing the common names of birds, a lot of the focus is often, quite rightly, on those species which are named after people who have done reprehensible things.

'But there are other names which are inaccurate, offensive, or inappropriate,' explains Alex. 'That can be, for example, birds named after a group of people or named - as is the case of the palm warbler - with no bearing whatsoever to its habitat.

'There are no palm trees where the palm warbler occurs.'

There are plenty of examples in which birds have been named inaccurately. For example, in Australia the common name for Gymnorhina tibicen is the Australian magpie, even though it is not a magpie and doesn't even belong in the corvid family. 

'This is why you get lots of different "finches", which are actually a bunch of different groups of birds, but they are all called finches because they all sort of look the same,' says Alex. 'Or with tits and babblers, which are two different groups, but then there are also the tit-babblers which are a third group. So you end up linking three groups of birds which are completely unrelated.'

A small bird with an olive back and yellow belly perches on a rock.

Tit-babblers, such as this striped tit-babbler, are rather inaccurately named as they are related to neither tits or babblers ©JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons

Even when a name is simply scientifically inaccurate, it can be difficult to change. A case in point is the kiwikiu, or Maui parrotbill.

A species of honeycreeper endemic to the Hawaiian island of Maui, it is unrelated to the parrotbills, which are a group typically found in southeast Asia. The Native Hawaiian name for this species had been lost, so to rectify this misnaming of the bird, a group worked with the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee to develop an indigenous Hawaiian name based on the species and its habitat. Eventually they settled on kiwikiu.

But when this proposed name change was submitted to the North American Classification Committee in 2010 it was rejected, with one of the official comments reading, 'the last thing we need is yet another ridiculous Hawaiian language name'. The comment was removed from the website in 2020. The official name remains 'Maui parrotbill', although kiwikiu is increasingly used in scientific publications.

Finally, there are species which are not named after a person but are still deeply offensive. In many cases, including in North America, some of these names have been changed, as seen with the long-tailed duck two decades ago.

'In South Africa they have just changed the names of the blue-billed teal and the Fynbos buttonquail, which were originally named after a pejorative word for Indigenous South Africans,' explains Alex. 'These have been changed to reflect more inclusive and less racist views.'

Documenting change

The new paper documents the shift to rectify many of these inappropriate and offensive names and the resistance to do so officially (particularly within North America), and highlights other examples around the world which show just how easy the process can be.

'All these committees just need to get on with it,' says Alex. 'Common names have been changed in Sweden, South Africa and in Aotearoa (New Zealand) to reflect changing attitudes.

'And some of them we now know, such as the kākāpō. That is the accepted international name and that is a Māori word. This isn't difficult.' 

A nolive coloured bird with a hooked beak is perching on a branch in the middle of a forest.

The kiwikiu, or Maui parrotbill, is a great example of how the birding community can work with local communities to give better, more accurate common names to birds ©Zach Pezzillo/Wikimedia Commons

Alex and his co-author Robert Driver give key recommendations as to how committees can change common bird names.

First, the groups which decide on common names have to be able to recognise that some of these names will be racist or bigoted, even if individual committee members don't find them personally offensive.

Second, these committees would engage with the groups that are affected by these names with the common goal of rectifying that harm. This is precisely what was done with the kiwikiu, showcasing that these changes can be easily achieved.

Third, how these groups are governed and their processes have to explicitly include how to deal with these problematic names.

Finally, these groups should be more diverse and representative of the communities that they serve.

'Our goal isn't to be prescriptive, because every country, group and society is going to look at this a bit differently,' explains Alex. 'But there are some broad principles that can be applied.'

According to Alex, one of the simple joys of common bird names is that they that reflect local people, places and cultures, but this should not come at the expense of being inaccurate or offensive. 

In moving forward with making it easier to change the common names of birds, the AOS says, 'The AOS is currently assembling a new ad hoc committee that will be tasked with developing recommendations for more detailed guidelines on and procedures for identifying and changing harmful English bird names for social justice considerations, and will be using this information to make recommendations for policy changes and proactive steps that the AOS can take toward a process that will change harmful names.

'This committee is still in development and will represent the broad demographic and geographic diversity of people interested in how English bird names are chosen and used, experts in scientific nomenclature, birders, ornithologists, and society leaders. The co-chairs are empowered to add members and advisors who represent varied viewpoints from across the broad ornithological and birding community.'