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Why 80 North American Birds Are Being Renamed

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) has committed to a tremendous task over the next few years: the renaming of all North American eponymous English bird names. Eponymous indicates something named after a person, usually in honor or remembrance of the individual. 

In other words, the AOS will rename every bird named after someone within the AOS’s geographic jurisdiction. They have also vowed to rename any birds with offensive or derogatory names. 

Wilson's Warbler, a bird name likely to change in the AOS Bird Renaming Project.
A Wilson’s Warbler, a bird likely to be renamed in the AOS Bird Renaming Project. Image by Steve Jones via Flickr

To fully understand this impactful decision, let’s address the compelling why – why are birds being renamed? Then, I’ll cover everything you need to know about how the AOS plans to rename birds and how this decision will impact the rest of the globe. 

Why are North American Birds Being Renamed? 

Many English bird names reference historical naturalists, such as Wilson’s Warbler, named after Alexander Wilson, who is considered the “father of American ornithology.” However, some of these eponymous bird names represent colonial settlers who had morally questionable and racist backgrounds. 

For example, Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole are birds that honor John James Audubon, a highly respected naturalist and the namesake of the National Audubon Society. He was also a slave owner and was against the abolitionist movement. Another example is Townsend’s Warbler, named after John Kirk Townsend, a naturalist who robbed Indigenous graves for skulls. 

Audubon's Shearwater, a bird name likely to change in the AOS Bird Renaming Project.
An Audubon’s Shearwater, named after John James Audubon, a famous naturalist and a slave owner. Image by Brendan Galvin via Flickr

Who Is Behind This Project?

Considering these names’ exclusionary and sometimes offensive nature, Bird Names for Birds presented a bird renaming petition to the American Ornithological Society. The AOS has the authority to change common bird names and has maintained a list of official English-language bird names in North America since 1886. The petition requested the AOS rename eponymous bird names with the explanation:

Many common bird names in North America commemorate men who participated in a colonial, genocidal, and heavily exploitative period of history. These antiquated common names are harmful, unnecessary, and should be changed in the interest of a more welcoming ornithology.” 

The AOS took this petition seriously and, in response, created the Ad Hoc English Bird Names Committee “to develop a process that will allow the [AOS] to change harmful and exclusionary English bird names in a thoughtful and proactive way for species within AOS’s purview.” This committee met bi-weekly for nine months and developed a strategic process for renaming birds. 

On November 1st, 2023, AOS officially announced the bird renaming project “in an effort to address past wrongs and engage far more people in the enjoyment, protection, and study of birds.” 

It’s evident that the AOS wishes to create a harmonious and inclusive environment for bird lovers, and they believe this significant eponymous name change will be part of that. 

So Why Not Just Change The Birds Tied To Harmful Historical Figures?

They made it clear they would address all eponymous bird names rather than only the names related to harmful historical figures. The committee reasoned that changing all eponymous bird names would help avoid “fraught debates” on human morality and judgments (these debates would be necessary for a case-by-case review of bird names). 

Bonaparte's Gull, a bird name likely to change in the AOS Bird Renaming Project.
A Bonaparte’s Gull, named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, the French ornithologist and nephew to former French emperor Napoleon. Image by Eric Zhou via Flickr

The English Bird Names Committee also found that birds being renamed opened an exciting opportunity to have more descriptive and meaningful names. AOS president Colleen Handel said in a statement about the AOS’s bird renaming decision, “We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves.”

How The AOS Will Rename Birds 

The AOS will start the bird renaming process this year, 2024, through a “scientifically rigorous” pilot program. To begin with, they will focus on 70-80 bird species that primarily occur in the United States and Canada. 

To do this, the AOS will assemble a committee to oversee the bird renaming project (different from the Ad Hoc English Bird Names Committee). This committee will include diverse individuals with backgrounds in social sciences, communications, ornithology, and taxonomy. 

Their goal is to create a committee involving experts in different fields to consider each new bird name’s societal, cultural, and scientific impact. However, it won’t just be the committee deciding the new common name for these birds – they plan to actively involve the public in the bird renaming process.

The AOS hasn’t announced how they plan to involve the public in selecting new English bird names. If you live in the United States and wish to participate in this exciting process, they invite you to follow along on their website – www.americanornithology.com – or follow them on major social media platforms (@AmOrnith). They’ll provide updates about the bird renaming project as they develop. 

This is an exciting opportunity for birding community members to share their favorite aspects about the birds they love, such as their unique characteristics or distinct physical attributes. That way, the birds being renamed will have a common name that better describes who that bird is. 

Thick-Billed Longspur
A Thick-Billed Longspur, a bird renamed in 2020. It was originally called the McCown’s Longspur after John Porter McCown, a bird collector and Confederate general who fought against Indigenous people. Image by Steve Jones via Flickr

How the Bird Renaming Project Affects The Rest of the Globe 

Because the AOS has authority over common bird names in Central and South America, they plan to work with ornithological societies in Latin America to collaborate on the English bird renaming project. 

The AOS only has the authority to change common bird names within its geographic jurisdiction (North, Central, and South America). Therefore, any English bird names outside of this geographic jurisdiction will not be affected. Other entities, sometimes in collaboration with AOS, will continue to determine eponymous common bird names elsewhere in the globe. 

Furthermore, AOS will not change eponymous scientific names as part of the bird renaming initiative. 

US Birds Being Renamed

The AOS has not released an official list of the 70-80 bird species they plan to initially rename. That said, these common US birds will likely receive a name change*: 

  1. Allen’s Hummingbird
  2. Anna’s Hummingbird
  3. Baird’s Sandpiper
  4. Bell’s Sparrow
  5. Bewick’s Wren
  6. Bonaparte’s Gull
  7. Brandt’s Cormorant
  8. Brewer’s Blackbird
  9. Brewer’s Sparrow
  10. Bullock’s Oriole
  11. Cassin’s Finch
  12. Cassin’s Kingbird
  13. Cassin’s Sparrow
  14. Cassin’s Vireo
  15. Cooper’s Hawk
  16. Gambel’s Quail
  17. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  18. Hutton’s Vireo
  19. Leconte’s Sparrow
  20. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  21. MacGillivray’s Warbler
  22. Nelson’s Sparrow
  23. Say’s Phoebe
  24. Scott’s Oriole
  25. Steller’s Jay 
  26. Swainson’s Hawk 
  27. Swainson’s Thrush 
  28. Townsend’s Solitaire
  29. Townsend’s Warbler 
  30. Virginia’s Warbler 
  31. Wilson’s Phalarope
  32. Wilson’s Plover
  33. Wilson’s Snipe
  34. Wilson’s Warbler 

*This is not an official list of birds being renamed by AOS.