It’s a new year, and that means a new BB list of Western Palearctic Birds (https://britishbirds.co.uk/content/british-birds-list). The list we produce each year doesn’t have any taxonomic-decision-making or records-committee level of authority. Rather, it’s designed as an editorial tool, to ensure continuity through the next 12 issues. That continuity matters and, although scientific names help to bind things together (they change too, though!), if we called a Great Black-headed Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus a Great Black-headed Gull in one paper and a Pallas’s Gull in the next, confusion and chaos would soon reign supreme.
Despite this striving for stability, name changes do happen. In most years, these come about due to taxonomic splits or lumps. This January, there aren’t many of those to deal with – ‘Hume’s Whitethroat’ Curruca curruca althaea is back with Lesser Whitethroat C. curruca, and there are a few ‘new’ chaffinches – but we have made a few more changes to the English names than usual. These, we hope, are all non-controversial and will add clarity, particularly in a global context. Pintail Anas acuta, for example, becomes Northern Pintail, while Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus becomes Eurasian Whimbrel. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to many of you that Northern Pintail and Eurasian Whimbrel weren’t already the ‘official’ BB names for these species.
While these small adjustments aren’t likely to cause any ripples, there are bigger changes afoot in North America. In November 2023, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced that they planned to change all eponymous species names for birds on the North American list (https://americanornithology.org/english-bird-names/english-bird-names-working-to-get-it-right; see also p. 4). A press release by the Society stated: ‘The AOS has been working to determine the best process for proactively changing harmful and exclusionary English bird names for species within our geographic realm of responsibility.’
The proposal has already caused substantial debate, with strong voices raised on both sides of the argument. On a personal level, I’ll admit to not quite being totally sure what I think. I’m fully in agreement that many of the individuals commemorated in birds’ names ought not to be celebrated or memorialised in such a way, even those who had a direct connection with finding or describing the bird; and I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that eponymous species names go, no exceptions. Some babies will for sure go out with the bathwater, but it makes the proposal cleaner and easier to enact.
There is precedent for such name changes, of course – though not on such a sweeping scale. ‘Old Squaw’ went out of use in favour of Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis, and there’s already been a slow creep towards names such as White-winged (instead of Güldenstädt’s) Redstart P. erythrogastrus, Rufous-backed (instead of Eversmann’s) Redstart P. erythronotus and Amur (instead of Stejneger’s) Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri. In fact, the chats seem to have been particularly prone to this quiet revision of names. Perhaps the recent shake-up of taxonomy and sequence in that part of the list has left us more open to changes to the names, too? Or perhaps all of these species share a degree of unfamiliarity to most; a (geographical as well as emotional) distance that makes us less precious about what they’re called?
That idea of preciousness around names is something I’ve thought about, both in the context of these proposals and more broadly in the use of bird names in my life. Bird names hold a strong set of emotions: would the excitement on a seawatch be the same if a call of ‘Thick-billed Murre!’ went up, instead of ‘Brünnich’s Guillemot [Uria lomvia]!’? Or would we be as satisfied if we found a ‘Yellow-rumped Leaf Warbler’ instead of a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus? The bird we were seeing wouldn’t, after all, have changed, so would the name really matter?
Since living in Sweden, I’ve wrestled with the challenge of what to call a bird while I’m watching it. To someone who doesn’t speak any Swedish, a blå kärrhök may sound more exciting than a stäpphök – but one soon realises from the excitement level in people’s voices that a blå kärrhök (‘blue marsh hawk’ – a Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus) is considerably less exciting locally than a stäpphök (‘steppe hawk’ – a Pallid Harrier C. macrourus). These days, a shout of stäpphök gives the same buzz as a shout of Pallid Harrier would; the rarity and the beauty of the bird is just the same, no matter what I’m calling it. Similarly, my brain is sometimes in ‘Swedish mode’ while I’m out birding and the voice inside my head tells me that I’m seeing a talgoxe (Great Tit Parus major) or a bofink (Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs). I’m not translating these names to English; I’m processing the entire sighting in Swedish. In this respect, what the bird is actually called doesn’t matter – as long as I can associate a mental image, and a set of emotions, with the words I’m hearing. And therein lies the complication with name changes. It doesn’t matter what the bird is called – but it does matter that we understand the name, and we can link it to the creature in question.
Plenty of studies have shown that the naming of things (including ourselves) is of great importance to humans. A name helps us to place and remember an object, to feel fondness – or fear – and to communicate shared experience of the same thing. I worry that, by changing so many species names all at once – no matter the strength of the moral argument behind the action – a disconnection will form, not just between the birds and an entire generation of birders, but also among conservationists, politicians and other important policymakers. The disconnection won’t be long lasting, of course – within a generation or two, new birders will look at the old names and wonder why birds were ever called that in the first place, a situation similar to that of birders today looking back through a guide from the 1970s and seeing names such as ‘Rufous Warbler’ (Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin Cercotrichas galactotes) – but there’s a risk that the damage caused to conservation by the period of disconnection could be irreparable.
You don’t have to dig too deep on online forums to find passionate comments from either side of the debate on the AOS’s proposal. It’s also not difficult to find comments that suggest that if you’re not 100% for the proposal, you’re basically in favour of the harmful and exclusionary practices associated with some of the eponymous species names. The reality, and the debate, needs to be more nuanced and less black and white than that. As I said earlier in the editorial, I’m not totally clear what I think about the proposal, since I have so many emotions and thoughts on so many different points, some of which directly contradict others. A slower, more organic move towards shifting names seems like a good idea to me – not because these old names ought to stay, but because a sudden and drastic rewriting of the North American list may prove to be too much, too quick.
European birders will, I’m sure, be watching to see what happens.
Stephen Menzie, Editor