MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A lot of birds in the U.S. and Canada are named after people. There's Steller's jay, Cooper's hawk, Anna's hummingbird and dozens more. All of those familiar bird names will soon change. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce says the birding community wants to leave these names in the past. It's just part of an effort to make birding more welcoming to everybody.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Robert Driver is a scientist who's long been interested in bird names, how those names can come from past events and people and how they may not really fit the bird, like the palm warbler. This yellowish songbird doesn't live in palm trees. It was named by an 18th century European naturalist who saw one that was just collected on an island.
ROBERT DRIVER: That's the type of name that bothers me, that we have to all use this name which is based on this one moment which has nothing to do with the bird.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So in 2017, when violence broke out in Charlottesville over a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, he wondered...
DRIVER: Were any of these birds named after people who served in the Confederate Army?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It turns out, yes. A bird had been named for a Confederate Army general, John Porter McCown. Driver thought it should be changed, so he put in a proposal to the American Ornithological Society. It's in charge of the official list of English language bird names in North America. It sometimes renames birds, usually for scientific reasons, but Driver's proposal got rejected.
DRIVER: That's kind of how it sat for a little bit.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then, in 2020, came the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That same day, a white woman in New York City's Central Park called the police on a Black birder. More birders began to think about social justice in their community. People signed letters, petitions. That bird named after the Confederate general quickly got officially renamed. It's now the thick-billed longspur.
COLLEEN HANDEL: Which is a descriptive name that everyone can relate to and not feel bad about saying that name.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Colleen Handel is the president of the American Ornithological Society. She says scientists prize stability when it comes to names, but...
HANDEL: We've come to understand that there are certain names that have offensive or derogatory connotations that cause pain to people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And that's why a group called Bird Names For Birds urged the society to revisit all bird names that honored people. Kenn Kaufman was initially against the idea of changing so many names. He's written bird guides and has used these names for six decades.
KENN KAUFMAN: I knew the young people who had started this Bird Names For Birds movement, and I tried to talk some sense into them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Instead, they convinced him. He realized if the society tried to reconsider one bird name at a time...
KAUFMAN: We would just become sort of the morality police for people who lived two centuries ago.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There'd be endless arguments. Now that the society has decided to change them all, he says birders will get to have arguments they should enjoy, about which features of a bird to highlight. Erica Nol is a biologist at Trent University. She recently was watching a bird that has special feathers that allow it to make a haunting sound as it flies through the air. It's called Wilson's snipe.
ERICA NOL: I thought, oh, what a terrible name, Wilson's snipe. I mean, Wilson was the father of modern ornithology in North America, but this bird has so many other evocative characteristics.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She thinks people surely will be able to come up with a better name. The society's renaming project will start next year and will solicit input from the public.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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