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The Evolution and Impact of Bird Names: What it Means for Birding in Northern Nevada and Beyond

By: Jennie Johnson


Birdwatching isn't just about snapping pictures and listening to chirps; it's also about understanding the importance of each species. One current hot topic of this pastime is the ongoing renaming of North American bird species, a process driven by scientific knowledge, cultural evolution, and a deeper understanding of our world. “The American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced that in an effort to address past wrongs and engage far more people in the enjoyment, protection, and study of birds, it will change all English bird names currently named after people within its geographic jurisdiction.” In Northern Nevada, where birding is a popular hobby, and beyond, these changes can have significant implications for birders.



In recent years, the cultural significance of renaming bird species has become a high priority, particularly regarding eponyms from historical figures that are now recognized as problematic. The birding community has become increasingly aware of the need to address cultural insensitivity in the naming of birds. Some bird species were historically given names that perpetuated colonialist narratives or marginalized Indigenous peoples and minority communities. “For example, the Scott’s oriole…found in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest — is named after Civil War general Winfield Scott, who forcibly relocated Native Americans along the Trail of Tears.”



As birding as a whole strives to become more inclusive and culturally sensitive, efforts are being made to reconsider and rename some species in a manner that respects diverse cultures and acknowledges the contributions of all birders. By recognizing and rectifying the cultural biases embedded in bird names, many in the birding community have aimed to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all bird enthusiasts, regardless of background or identity.



Additionally, advances in technology, such as DNA analysis and phylogenetics studies, have provided researchers with new insights into bird species’ relationships. Phylogenetics (the study of the evolutionary history of organisms), morphology (the study of the physical characteristics such as beak shape, plumage patterns, and skeletal structure), and behavior of birds play crucial roles in bird reclassification as scientists analyze bird species to determine evolutionary relationships and revise taxonomy accordingly. For example, in 2023 ornithologists re-classified Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers together as one species, the Western Flycatcher, due to new evidence that the genetics, morphology, and vocalizations are not consistently distinguishable. These changes reflect a deeper understanding of bird biology and highlight the dynamic and ever-changing nature of scientific research.



In response to both scientific factors and cultural influences, The American Ornithological Society (the organization that determines the official English names for North America’s bird species) announced that they are beginning the process to change the English names of the approximately 152 North American birds and 111 South American birds named after people. Eponymous names “confer little value to better understand, connect with, or capture the essence of a species.”  New names will better describe species’ appearance or ecology and will incorporate attributes that are also more practical and helpful for making bird identifications in the field. The changes only apply to the common English names for the relevant species; the Latin, scientific names of birds will not be changed.  All birds currently named after people within the jurisdiction of the AOS will be changed.



The renaming of bird species will have practical implications for birders in Northern Nevada. Local birdwatching hotspots, such as Rosewood Nature Study Area, may see shifts in the species reported as name changes are implemented across tracking platforms like iNaturalist, Merlin and eBird. Birders accustomed to spotting familiar species under their previous names will need to adjust to the updated names. Field guides, birding apps, and online databases used by Northern Nevada birders will likely be updated over time to reflect these changes accurately as they are rolled out by the American Ornithological Society. As the name changes that focus on appearance and ecology roll out, it may actually become easier to identify bird species with their new names.  The project begins this year with an initial focus on 70 to 80 bird species that occur primarily in the United States and Canada, or, about 6% percent of the total species in North America.



As bird taxonomy continues to evolve, we encourage birders in Northern Nevada to remain informed and adaptable. The renaming of bird species is not just a scientific exercise; it's a reflection of our evolving understanding of the natural world and our cultural values. Participating in citizen science projects, attending birding workshops, and staying connected with local birding communities can help birders navigate these changes effectively. By embracing the evolving nature of bird names, birders in Northern Nevada can deepen their understanding of avian diversity; contribute to ongoing research and conservation efforts; and enjoy and share the beauty and diversity of our North American birding community.


List of Nevada Birds Likely to Change:


Spotted at Rosewood Nature Study Area OR likely viewable in Northern Nevada:

  • Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor)

  • Baird’s Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii)

  • Sabine's Gull (Xema sabini)

  • Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

  • Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri)

  • Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

  • Townsend's Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)

  • Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)

  • Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

  • Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

  • Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

  • Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii)

  • Lewis's Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis)

  • Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

  • Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)

  • Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya)

  • MacGillivray's Warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei)

  • Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata)


Uncommon in Northern Nevada OR viewable outside the Truckee Meadows OR possibly viewable in Nevada:

  • Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula)

  • Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

  • Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii)

  • Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii)

Also Contributing to this Blog:

Elena Larsen, TMPF Nature Study Area VP

Hannah Lansverk Sonnenberg, TMPF Youth Education Director


Additional Information:

American Ornithological Society Will Change the English Names of Bird Species Named After People: https://americanornithology.org/american-ornithological-society-will-change-the-english-names-of-bird-species-named-after-people/ 


These 48 Humboldt Bird Species Will Need to Be Renamed, Says American Ornithological Society


These 263 Common Bird Names Will Be Gone FOREVER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZS29m3gZv_c


All North American Birds Named After People Will Soon Get New Names: https://www.audubon.org/news/all-north-american-birds-named-after-people-will-soon-get-new-names


Ad Hoc English Bird Names Committee Recommendations for Council of the American Ornithological Society(AOS): https://americanornithology.org/about/english-bird-names-project/english-bird-names-committee-recommendations/


These American birds and dozens more will be renamed, to remove human monikers: https://www.npr.org/2023/11/01/1209660753/these-american-birds-and-dozens-more-will-be-renamed-to-remove-human-monikers



 

 

About the Author



Jennie is serving her third Americorps VISTA term as the Wetland Restoration Outreach Coordinator. She is from right here in Reno and went to the University of Nevada, Reno for a degree in Cultural Anthropology. She’s excited to use her marketing background to teach people about the parks and opportunities in their community. She enjoys running, hiking, sunshine and events such as Moms on the Run and the American River Half Marathon.


11 Comments

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Guest
Feb 28

Disappointingly one-sided. I strongly encourage everyone interested in this issue to read some of the vast and well-reasoned dissenting commentary posted on the petition to get the AOS to reconsider their decree (https://www.change.org/p/petition-to-aos-leadership-on-the-recent-decision-to-change-all-eponymous-bird-names)

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Guest
Feb 27
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great information! What a good read

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Guest
Feb 27
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I appreciate this article. Renaming birds to reflect bird characteristics and to lessen the significance of humans seems wise, maybe a metaphor for our relationship with nature overall.

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Guest
Feb 27

So now bird names are offensive??? What bird-brained maroon decided THAT???

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Guest
Feb 27
Replying to

This bird-brained committee made the recommendations https://americanornithology.org/about/english-bird-names-project/english-bird-names-committee-recommendations/. And this bird-brained organization, the American Ornithological Society, made the decision. https://americanornithology.org/.

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Guest
Feb 27
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you for this informative and well written article! Makes a lot of sense when presented this way and in advance of the changes ❤️

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