Saturday, June 15, 2019

Splits and Lumps in the ABA Podcast

The American Birding Association released their annual AOS Classification Committee roundup podcast this week, my favorite annual episode. As always, host Nate Swick talks with Stonehill College professor Dr. Nick Block about this years' proposals to the Committee, and which ones might or might not pass.

It's great fun to hear about how our checklists might change based on the latest science, and this one was another great episode. I enjoyed the early discussion about possible White-winged Scoter splits and an unlikely Harlan's Hawk split, as well as the other scientific discussion.

However, when the conversation got to the part about possible changes to some common names, I had some qualms. QUALM ALERT. 

Not being a scientist, I have no opinion on the scientific lumps and splits stuff. Being a regular birder, though, I do have some strong opinions on common names. In the episode, Swick and Block discussed two possible name changes before the Classification Committee -- regarding McCown's Longspur and Blue-throated Hummingbird -- and I had some problems with each. 

First, I am on record as being a strong supporter of changing the name of the McCown's Longspur, which is being proposed because it turns out that John P. McCown was a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Oops. I love honorific names, but also strongly support changing them if we think the honored person is no longer worthy. We have the power, let's use it!

I was surprised, then, to hear Nate hesitate on this rename, citing the ol' slippery slope argument by saying, "where do you stop once you start going down this path?" I just hate slippery slope arguments, which have been used to justify not doing all kinds of good things worth doing, because they're so often posed as a rhetorical question without an answer. Instead, slipper slope questions always have an answer, and for the question of "where do we stop once we start going down the path" of renaming birds named after unworthy people, there are two pretty clear answers. The first answer, the one that applies to all slippery slope questions, is: "We stop wherever we decide too." No decision obligates us to any other decision, and with debate and thought smart people put limits on things all the time. It's not a big deal. The second answer, the more specific one for this renaming question, is: "We stop somewhere on the other side of honoring a guy who took up arms against his countrymen so that he could keep other human beings as slaves." I hope the Committee passes this rename, and I look forward to additional reconsiderations of avian honorees.

My second qualm was about the discussion of the proposed renaming of Blue-throated Hummingbird to Blue-throated Mountaingem (Mountain-gem?). I'm no expert on Central American hummingbirds (one day I hope!), but do know a single species of the Lampornis genus from Arizona: the Blue-throated Hummingbird. Apparently, all the other species in this genus are called Mountangems, not Hummingbird, and this proposal would extend that name to the Blue-throat. Sounds cool, and Mountaingem is a hell of a word. I support it.

I furrowed my brows a bit about how Nate and Dr. Block discussed the proposal, though. There was some eye-rolling in the beginning of the episode about how the Classification Committee lacks consistency in making decisions, but I thought the support of this change was inconsistent with what the two were discussing earlier. In their talk about honorifics, Dr. Block said he preferred descriptive names (well, except for ones that are poorly descriptive, like Ring-necked Duck)...but isn't getting rid of "Hummingbird" in this species' name a step away from description and towards obfuscation? Everyone knows what a hummingbird is, but what the heck is a mountaingem? Dr. Block said that he favored the name change in part because it "reduces confusion" -- meaning that all the species in Lampornis would now share the Mountaingem name -- and I suppose that's true, but only for those birders who are familiar with the entire genus. I'd say for the rest of us, for the majority of American birders, the change would instead cause confusion!

It's a matter of perspective. To ornithologists like Dr. Block, changing the name to Mountaingem would align them with their related species elsewhere on the continent. But to American non-ornithologists, those hordes of regular birders who, like me, have enough to remember with just my Sibley, the name change would be something new and different. The Classification Committee, I suspect, will take the ornithologist view. A cursory check tells me that every member of the Committee except Jon Dunn has a Ph.D. (and he probably deserves one). These are not regular birders. But the decision to change the common name of a species is not based in science. Unlike all the other lump/split decisions made by this Committee, for which I am grateful they are the top scientists in the field, common names live with us, the commoners. Do we get a say in how common names are chosen? I hope Jon Dunn carries our water, and at least reminds the Committee of the other perspectives involved. 


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