Offensive and inaccurate bird names should be changed, study says


The study focussed on examples of birds from regions with a history of colonisation, including South Africa and North America.

‘The arguments for not changing common names are often for stability, in that a species has always had that name,’ says Alex. ‘But we managed well enough with changing the name of Clangula hyemalis to long-tailed duck 20 years ago, so I think we can handle it.

‘Also, the scientific names are there for stability.’

In response to these conversations, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) says, ‘Bird names are the entry point to accessing all of the information that has been gathered over many decades of research on bird species, information that is key to broader understanding, enjoyment, and conservation of those species by the ornithological and birding communities.

‘At the same time, AOS recognizes that, due to their harmful nature, some English bird names can potentially be a barrier to participation in ornithology and the broader enjoyment of birds. We are committed to changing harmful and exclusionary names that limit that participation.’

But there is more nuance when it comes to the common bird names than is often realised.

Inaccurate, offensive or inappropriate

When it comes to changing the common names of birds, a lot of the focus is often, quite rightly, on those species which are named after people who have done reprehensible things.

‘But there are other names which are inaccurate, offensive, or inappropriate,’ explains Alex. ‘That can be, for example, birds named after a group of people or named – as is the case of the palm warbler – with no bearing whatsoever to its habitat.

‘There are no palm trees where the palm warbler occurs.’

There are plenty of examples in which birds have been named inaccurately. For example, in Australia the common name for Gymnorhina tibicen is the Australian magpie, even though it is not a magpie and doesn’t even belong in the corvid family. 

‘This is why you get lots of different “finches”, which are actually a bunch of different groups of birds, but they are all called finches because they all sort of look the same,’ says Alex. ‘Or with tits and babblers, which are two different groups, but then there are also the tit-babblers which are a third group. So you end up linking three groups of birds which are completely unrelated.’

Atlanta Black Star | Africa


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