Tuesday, February 5, 2019

On Bird Names

A recent proposal to the AOS to change the common name of McCown's Longspur has got people talking once again about some of our worst bird names.

I have specific thoughts, but also want to make an overarching point.

We need to become more comfortable with change. All of us, all kinds of change. Things need to change and we need to allow it. Climate change and a million other forms of human influence are destroying our planet, and in order to save the planet and save ourselves we need to change. Change a lot of big things that'll probably be a huge pain in the ass and really hard. But we need to do it, and we know we need to do it, but change is hard and we don't like it.

The common names of birds are by my rough count 1000000 times less consequential than climate change. They truly do not matter in any real sense. Scientists don't use them. They don't have any bearing on species management or protections. The birds don't know what their names are, so they won't care. Common names are just codes that non-scientist humans say to each other to talk about the same species. They mean nothing.

So we should change them! If we don't like one we should change it! And if we don't like the new name we should change that, too! If there's a bird named after some guy and it turns out that guy was a huge racist jerk, change the name! If there's a name that refers to a woodpecker's red belly or a duck's ringed neck and no one on earth has ever seen the red belly or the ringed neck, change the names! They're made up words that we made up! We can do whatever we want!

We need to embrace change, really embrace it. If we can't figure out how to change the code word for a bird because it's named after an evil racist how are we going to agree on changing the hard stuff? Change the names.


There's a parallel discussion going on about honorifics, about the whole practice of naming species after people. I like them and always have, and think we should keep them around. It's fun to honor people, and to add a sense of history to the whole thing, and I think they sound exotic. My least favorite kind of name is the ADJECTIVE-BODYPARTED BIRDTYPE, but I feel like that's what most people want. The new proposed names for the McCown's Longspur include Prairie Longspur (aren't they sorta all on prairies?), Banded Longspur (snoooooze), and Black-crowned Longspur (snoooooooooze). These are names that babies would give, like the families who get a black cat and name it Blackie.

I think some birders like descriptive names because they seem scientific, or at least strive to "make sense." Screw that. If you want to be a scientist use the scientific names. These jerks would change Bobolink to Yellow-capped Blackbird or Whip-poor-will to like Eastern Nightjar or some shit. Honorifics and other non-descriptive names (many/most of which are actually onomatopoeic, which is sort of descriptive but not really because they're interpretive and end up being unique words), aren't always super clear. They've got mystery, or backstory, or are open to interpretation. They're art, in other words, and birding needs some more of that.

If there are honorifics that honor someone inappropriate, change it! (See above.) There are plenty of worthy people out there, as I've written about before. We have the power to make things right.

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