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Change To Bird Names Ruffles Some Feathers

The American Ornithological Society has decided to move away from naming birds after people

Bird species across the province will need to revisit their government documents after a recent change by the American Ornithological Society (AOS).

The AOS is a group of bird experts working to study and conserve bird species. Earlier this month, the group announced that 142 birds in North America will no longer be named after people.

Starting in 2024, approximately 80 bird species named after people will receive new names. In 2025, the remaining bird names will change.

What Prompted the AOS to Make This Decision? 

Nicole Koper | University of Manitoba

In short, bird species are named after some not-so-great people, and the AOS wants to remove these old-fashioned names and instead rename the birds with descriptive names.

For example, take the McCown’s Longspur (pictured above).

The bird was initially named after Confederate General John P. McCown.

McCown was known for being drunk and abandoning arms during the Civil War. Before McCown fought to defend slavery in the Civil War, he was an amateur avian collector. 

The longspur had the unfortunate luck of being collected by McCown in 1851. 

However, the species name was changed in 2020 to thick-billed longspur to remove the reference to McCown. And now the AOS is fast-tracking name changes for all the remaining bird species named after people.

“I think what’s really interesting about southern Alberta is that it’s the home of the very first species that was renamed because it was named after a person,” Nicola Koper, co-author of Best Places to Bird in the Prairies, told CBC News.

Support for Renaming

Fisher Stephenson, a student at Mount Royal University and an avid bird watcher from Cochrane, expressed his support for the AOS’ decision. 

“Birds exist all over the world, in every single continent. There’s almost nowhere in the world you can go where you don’t find birds. I see no reason why a bird should hold a name that honours a person who used to oppress a certain group of people,” Stephenson told CBC News.

Swainson’s Hawk will soon have a new descriptive name |

Stephenson, who also made a film titled 142 on this topic, received support for the name changes but also some backlash from people who felt the name changes were pointless or a case of cancel culture.

Erasing the roots of racism wherever possible is not pointless; it’s simply correcting an injustice. 

Many bird species were discovered at a time when people of colour were being enslaved and removed from their lands.

People of colour were rarely credited for their knowledge. Because of this, very few bird species today honour non-white people, and even fewer are recognized by the First Nations’ original names for the birds.

Instead, the new naming method will focus on a bird’s visual appearance by providing more descriptive names. This change will make it easier for people to identify and learn about birds. 

In Alberta, almost 40 bird species are set to undergo name changes, including Cooper’s hawk, Swainson’s hawk, Ross’s goose, Barrow’s goldeneye, Baird’s sandpiper, Wilson’s phalarope, Franklin’s gull, Bonaparte’s gull, Lewis’s woodpecker, Hammond’s flycatcher, Swainson’s thrush, Brewer’s blackbird and six different species of sparrows.

These name changes won’t cause economic collapse or bring about the end times, but instead remove honouring an often less-than-stellar past. 

The beautiful birds that call our province home will still be here, and we’ll have names that better describe what we see. 

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