Thursday, June 14, 2012

Aztec v. Inca Dove

There is a very interesting post from David Ringer on 10k Birds right now about the proposal from the famous Dr. Van Remsen to the American Ornithologists' Union's North American Classification Committee to change the common name of the Inca Dove to the Aztec Dove.  The bird's current name, Dr. Remsen argues, is the result of a mistake by the French ornithologist Rene Primevere Lesson, who mixed up the Aztec (who lived in Mexico where the dove is found) and the Incas (who live in South America, where the dove ain't found).

The resulting name of Inca Dove, then, according to Dr. Remsen, is "dumb," "meaningless," "misleading," "ignorant," and "only confirms to Latin Americans how ignorant most Americans are of anything beyond our borders."

I agree with Dr. Remsen to the extent that the name is dumb and meaningless, but I disagree in that I don't think bird names need to be smart and meaningful.  Second, even if we agree that the name should be changed from Inca Dove, I don't think Aztec Dove is the best one to choose.  I want to address just that second point now.

The internet says that the current range of the Inca Dove is approximately this:

According to the very same internet, the maximum range of the Aztec Empire was this:

So, while the Aztecs ranged over a relatively small area in what is now southern Mexico, the Inca Dove ranges over a much larger area, including all of Mexico, parts of the southern U.S., Guatemala and El Salvador.

Though it is certainly more accurate to call the bird an Aztec Dove than an Inca Dove, calling it an Aztec Dove seems no more accurate than naming it for any of the ancestral people who lived in Inca Dove range, such as the Zacateco, the Tepecanos, the Guachichiles, the Charrizo, the Concho or the Chiricahua.  The reasons given for choosing "Aztec" -- range overlap; it's what Dr. Lesson probably meant; Inca Doves may have been present in Aztec gardens; and, the complex patterns on the dove's back are reminiscent of Aztec art -- seem half-baked, especially when correcting the mistake apparently means proving to Latin Americans that Americans aren't ignorant of everything beyond our borders.

I don't know what a better name for the Inca Dove is, but if we are going to change the name of the Inca Dove to something more accurate and more culturally sensitive, I'd like to make sure we're actually being accurate and culturally sensitive. 


John B. said...

The name "Aztec Dove" would have an advantage in that it would be easier for birders to remember the swtich from "Inca Dove" to "Aztec Dove" than from "Inca Dove" to some name that isn't based on an indigenous civilization within the bird's range (like say "Mexican Dove" or "Scaly-backed Dove"). Plus Aztecs are probably better known to American birders than other Mesoamerican indigenous peoples, except perhaps the Maya. You're right, however, that if the name change is being made for the sake of cultural sensitivity, that we should be sure that it's actually sensitive. I hope that the AOU naming committee consults with their colleagues in Mexico and Central America before settling on a new name. I see from Avibase that there are a variety of Spanish names for the bird; maybe one of those could be adopted. For what it's worth, names meaning "Aztec Dove" are already used in a few other languages (but not Spanish).

I don't see the limited extent of the Aztec civilization as necessarily being a problem. We already have plenty of other species named for only parts of their range (like Carolina Chickadee, Canada Goose, and California Gull — you can probably think of others). The circumstances aren't exactly the same, but I think a name like "Aztec Dove" could fit into that precedent.

NickL said...


Thanks for your comment. Your second point speaks to the point I made very briefly but didn't elaborate on (it was late and I was tired), that I don't think accuracy matters a whole lot in bird names. In fact, I think part of the charm for a lot of species (including, arguably, the Inca Dove) is the stories behind their unusual names. While inaccurate names (like Inca Dove or Hairy Woodpecker) or misleadingly-specific names (like Carolina Chickadee or Canada Goose) or confusing names (like the bird singled out by Dr. Remsen - the Evening Grosbeak) may be a thorn in the side of those seeking scientific accuracy, for people like me they can be delightful bits of poetry, as well as reminders of our history.

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