More on the debate over bird names
A supplement to my last post on this topic.
Every writing decision comes with trade-offs. The first arrives when one decides what to write about. Then there is how to approach the story. There are any number of directions an essay, a feature, or a newsletter could go. Or even when it could go.
That was the case in my thought process regarding the November decision by the American Ornithological Society (AOS) to change the names of 70 to 80 bird species that are named after people—many of who were objectionable, execrable characters who most of us would be repulsed by in the present. I didn’t want to write about it immediately, even though I’ve been known to quickly generate posts in the past. Being first doesn’t always mean being best.
I was curious to learn more about the reception of AOS’ decision. It’s easy to jump on a social media bandwagon. It’s easy to be a keyboard warrior, whose self-satisfying achievement is typing words onto a screen into an echo chamber. As they say, “social media changed my mind—said no one ever.”
The AOS decision resulted in many social media comments that were of the generic kind: accusations of wokeness, virtue signaling, destroying history, and the like. I received one of those on my initial post, “Name Changes Are a Common Sense Decision.” I challenged the commenter to explain why they were against the AOS decision without using the phrase “woke.” I was genuinely curious. However, that individual again responded with more buzzwords of our era.
My conclusion on January 8 was that most people against the decision likely believed in lessening confusion by changing names. Or maybe harbored some nostalgia for the bird species they grew up with. That isn’t entirely the case.
Thankfully, a few TWiB readers provided me with links to some of the substantive dissenting opinions. One blogger wrote the following. He initially had been in favor of the name changes but changed his mind as he learned more in the run-up to the decision:
At the core was an assumption about people they don’t know and cannot speak for: that their love for the natural world must be so weak that it can be ruined by a “barrier” consisting of the names of a few long dead explorers. I do not see how this is anything but condescending. What is more, it dilutes the meaning of the term, and demeans the very real experiences of those who have faced the real barriers of real discrimination in the field. Meanwhile, taking in the arguments for taxonomic stability and keeping the current names, I found my stance changed.
In another piece, a researcher took a look at the sentiment of comments from a pro-name change piece in the Washington Post. Internet comments are an imperfect measure (see above), but it found negative opinions outweighed positive ones by more than three-to-one:
There is considerable risk that broadly de-commemorating eponymous organismal names will create more negative than positive outcomes (e.g., through asymmetric polarization and the culture wars).
As an aside, it seems smart to me to rename all the birds at once. That way we don’t have ornithologists playing armchair historian and picking and choosing who were the most offensive characters of the past. From my earliest days, naming birds after people has just seemed well, weird. There’s so much potential to have cool bird names. Some names are works of art (see Painted Redstart). Some are just perfectly apt (see Yellow-bellied Sapsucker).
Bird walk leader with eyes to the sky: “That’s a Cooper’s Hawk.”
Young Bob quietly thinking: “Who the heck is Cooper? And why does he have a hawk?”
There are many meaningful questions to think about and probe into as birding grapples with its lack of diversity. Names are just one of them.
I think back to the decision to change the name of the Oldsquaw duck many years ago to Long-tailed Duck. Did anyone become outraged by this? No. We just went on birding and used the new name. And that’s what we should do now.