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Thoughts On Eradicating Eponymous Bird Names | Peter Roberts

November 16, 2020

[Posted by Chuck Almdale, 16 November, 2020]

Peter Roberts, author of the following essay, has lead over three hundred birding and wildlife tours over the past forty years, and has found over 6,500 species of birds. His brief description of himself:

“I am from the UK and have worked in birding and conservation all my life. I’ve travelled the world extensively, particularly guiding tours for birders of various nationalities.”

Peter characterizes his essay as “…thoughts on eponyms…sent to some of my regular fellow travellers in the USA. I have had quite a few replies – mostly agreeing to varying degrees that eradicating eponyms is a bit ‘Over The Top.’ The main thrust of my thoughts is that, it is indeed parochial, subjective and achieves very little.”

Until now, all opinions I’ve read on this subject of changing eponymous bird names were those of Americans. We easily become cocooned within our own views, and a “view from outside” is always valuable. Forgetting to listen to viewpoints from outside is one thing; deliberately rejecting the views of others before they are even stated, claiming that because they are not “one of us” they have can nothing useful to say, as is happening right now across America, is dangerous.

At the beginning of his essay, Peter refers to the website “Bird Names for Birds,” (BNFB) created by those wishing to eradicate all eponymous names for birds. If you haven’t heard of this group, or think that Peter misstates their intentions, read this opinion piece published on the Washington Post website, written by the BNFB website creators themselves, Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter: “The Stench of Colonialism mars these bird names. They must be changed.” Don’t miss the reader’s comments section at the end.

A longer bio of Peter follows his essay.

Thoughts On Eradicating Eponymous Bird Names

I have read with interest the discussion on the “Bird Names For Birds” website: I am very aware of the various abhorrent aspects of world history such as colonialism, slavery, empire-building, subjugation and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples. This period in our history coincided with much of the official naming of animal and plant species. Those taxa named after people of that era, whether the “discoverers”, sponsors or other naturalists clearly include people implicated whether by deed or association in, what is nowadays considered the totally unacceptable business of slavery, colonialism and so forth.

However, I feel that the move to expunge the eponymous common names of birds is misguided for a number of reasons. 

Is it “democratic”? It has been variously reported that there were 2,500 signatures on the petition to change the name of McCown’s Longspur. This is a tiny proportion of ornithologists/birders in the USA and does not represent anywhere near a majority. I’d be happier with the decision to rid the USA of eponymous common bird names if there was a proper referendum amongst birders and a clear majority were in favour. It is even more undemocratic when you consider that birds cross continents. Wilson’s Petrel for example has occurred offshore from most continents – do 2,500 birders from the USA have the legitimacy, based purely on their own view of what is acceptable and politically correct, to make all other birders worldwide accept whatever they may suggest as an alternative name?

Will ridding North America of eponymous common bird names actually solve any problems and make anyone feel any better? Those birders who know of McCown’s Longspur and all the other eponyms in the common names of North American birds will have field guides and know that there are also many eponyms in the scientific names of North American birds: 85-90 by my reckoning in a quick flip through my Sibley Guide. Thick-billed Longspur is still known as Rhynchophanes mccownii. So those who were affronted by the bird being named after McCown will continue to be affronted every time they open their field guide to that page or send in a record of Thick-billed Longspur to e-bird? Confederate General McCown is still glorified there – as is Bachman, Townsend and many others who are embedded in the scientific names. Surely the only remedy for the “Bird Names For Birds” lobby is to also rid North America of all scientific eponyms. Do we need to embark on the utter chaos and hugely contentious issue of revising the offending scientific names as well as the common names – or just forget the whole thing?

Why Only North American Birds? By my calculation there are about 800 eponymous common names of birds in the world. Just about everyone naming taxa in the 18th & 19th centuries (when most of it happened) was associated with some sort of Imperialism, colonisation, subjugation, enslavement and exploitation of ethnic/indigenous peoples. It seems rather “parochial”, to try and cleanse one continent of eponyms and leave the rest of the world in this mire of lauding historical figures who may have been great naturalists but didn’t necessarily behave towards others as we aspire to nowadays? I assume that “Birds Names For Birds” lobbyists would also wish to rename birds named for Speke, Burton and Livingstone in Africa and Blyth in Asia?

Why Stop At Birds? I am sure that other naturalists involved in botany, entomology and other disciplines are equally aware of the darker aspects of our world history and sensitive to the issues of eponymy in their own fields. There are many thousands of common and scientific eponymous names given to plants and other animal taxa, so why should botanists, mammologists and entomologists be left offended by eponymy? Perhaps the answer is that most (like most birders) are decent, caring people, aware of the inhuman aspects of world history, but have a sense of proportion?

Why Stop At Flora And Fauna? The vast majority of the population of the USA, UK and elsewhere are not birders and are blissfully unaware of the names of birds. Surely it is more relevant to focus our attention and efforts on addressing issues of our unpleasant history that the majority can relate to? Many more folk than are upset by eponyms in bird names may feel justifiably aggrieved as they pass statues of people formerly revered and now discredited, or walk through streets and pass buildings named after those implicated in slavery, colonialism and imperialism.

Where Does The “Historical Cleansing” End? I believe that the proposal from “Bird Names For Birds” is to eradicate all eponyms regardless of who the eponym relates to. This means that several well-deserved, more modern eponyms (Ted Parker and Paul Coopmans for example?) have to go in this “clean sweep”. But at least that approach avoids subjectivity and the need for a self-appointed committee deciding on how bad the various historical characters were and whether they should stay or go.

There are already moves afoot (certainly in USA and UK, but probably in other countries too) to rename streets and take down statues of historical figures implicated in our murky past. I am not necessarily opposed to this, and am in favour of putting up plaques at these sites to fully explain the history of those venerated. But it does leave unanswered the question – “where does it end?”.  If we are trying to rid ourselves of all such eponymous reference to the nastier aspects of our history then it has to become subjective – otherwise it becomes totally unworkable.

Apart from the inevitable heated debate on “who goes and who stays”, which may whip up extremism on all sides, if you take this aspect of “political correctness” to its logical conclusion it does truly become absurd. Once statues are taken down, landmarks, scholarships, streets and buildings renamed, there are much bigger issues to tackle. Thinking from an American perspective, there are dozens of towns and counties named after historical figures now rightly recognised as being unsavoury proponents of slavery and colonialism. Are we going to rename these? If not, why not? Logically, if birds named after slave-owners and colonialists have to go, then surely these towns, landmarks and so on are equally offensive – and to far more people than a few birders?

Perhaps whole States should be renamed? Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth I who was a great sponsor of colonising the Americas. Washington, Pennsylvania, Carolina, Georgia – all named for people potentially guilty of the same associations as those named for some of our birds. And to be “Devil’s Advocate” in extremis: don’t forget that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci – the original “discoverer” of the New World who set the whole colonial land-grab and need for the slave trade in motion. What committee is going to set themselves up to rename the USA!

An “Ideal World”. In an ideal world, where everyone was good and decent, slavery, empire-building and colonialism would never have happened. As a species we should be rightly ashamed of these aspects of our history. But as a species we should be aware it is an unpleasant part of human nature almost everywhere throughout history – and many such evils are still being perpetrated today. Slavery, empire-building and colonialism still goes on, as does the brutality of war.

But we cannot turn the clock back. History is just that – history. Ideally the Americas would never have suffered the awful subjugation and disenfranchisement of its native peoples. What are we to do to make amends? Every immigrant from Europe – and every one of their descendants now calling themselves an American is to some extent “guilty by association”. For all immigrants to the New World to feel sufficiently remorseful and make amends by repatriating to their ancestral homelands and leave the Americas to the rightful native peoples is clearly ridiculous. Equally ridiculous, in my view, in terms of its making any real difference is tinkering with a few bird names.

Who are the rightful original inhabitants of the British Isles – the Gaels or the Picts? We’ve had so many invasions and take-overs through history – Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Romans and Normans that nobody knows or cares. We are nowadays a great melting pot of people from all over the world – if only it were more completely harmonious.

A Better And More Constructive Way Forward. I appreciate that those promoting “Bird Names For Birds” are deeply concerned about “Righting wrongs” and human rights – as we all should be. However, fiddling about with a few bird names seems to be subjective, divisive and irrelevant to a larger audience. I understand and appreciate the sentiments involved in the campaign – who wouldn’t like history to have been different – and who wouldn’t like to put things right? But I cannot see much of practical worth being produced by it – but can see a disproportionate amount of chaos arising within adjusting the scientific nomenclature. You could argue that “every little helps” and “oak trees from small acorns grow”, but words are just words and much bigger step-changes are needed.

The USA (or any other place in the world with similar issues) will not be that much a better place by enforced name changes – whatever level they go to. If every eponymous animal name (common and scientific), every street and building and even towns and landmarks are renamed it makes no difference if there are some people with a mind-set that still marginalises, persecutes and treats badly, groups of our fellow citizens. Eradicating a few bird eponyms is at best a well-meaning token gesture that will make little impact other than to a few birders. Sorting out the ingrained iniquities and making a real difference to the lives of mistreated minorities is a much more important and massive socio-political problem. We should be concentrating on as much education about our history as possible to make as many people aware of what has gone on in the past; then relate that to all the equally similar and evil practises going on today. Why air-brush the nastier aspects of our history out of existence? Write books and make documentaries about all the horrible folk memorialised in bird names and street names and names of towns so that we can all read and learn and make it clear to aspiring naturalists and the general public that, while they may have given large bequests or named new birds we no longer revere everything these people did. Don’t let these erstwhile despots off the hook by allowing them to fade into the unknown – keep them there for our education and if it makes you feel better spit every time you mention McCown’s name!

We should be passing laws and righting historical wrongs wherever possible, practical and feasible to make changes for everyone’s good. If that were possible it might lead to us creating a more decent world whose history our great grandchildren can look back on with pride rather than the disgust and embarrassment that many of us now look back on ours.

Peter Roberts is based in Britain and lives on the Scottish island of Islay. A keen naturalist since childhood in London, birds are his main passion, but whale-watching, African big game, snorkeling and insects are all areas of further interest. A life of wildlife-related work has included nature reserve management, teaching wildlife field courses, ornithological survey and research, environmental consultancy and managing bird-ringing observatories and the Aldabra Research Station in the Indian Ocean. Peter has an MSc in woodland invertebrate ecology and published research on various subjects from feeding ecology of fruit bats to bird migration, identification, and behaviour through to ecology of seabirds and Red-billed Choughs. He has lead and arranged over 300 birding and wildlife tours over the past 40 years, finding over 6,500 bird species in over 100 countries worldwide from Antarctica to the Arctic and to all seven continents, working with many of the major specialist tour companies in the UK and USA as well as many personally arranged tours for private clients.

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