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These Pa. birds will be renamed as watchers reckon with racism, inclusion

Led by the American Ornithological Society, groups in PA and across the US are reviewing avian names to decouple birds from racism and boost inclusion.

  • By Tanisha Thomas of Spotlight PA
A Baird's sandpiper, one of over a dozen birds that breed in, migrate to, or visit Pennsylvania that could be getting a new name.

 Flickr / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A Baird's sandpiper, one of over a dozen birds that breed in, migrate to, or visit Pennsylvania that could be getting a new name.

This story first appeared in PA Local, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA taking a fresh, positive look at the incredible people, beautiful places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania. 

Correction: This article has been updated to remove a reference to the Baltimore oriole. An American Ornithological Society committee has recommended not renaming birds named after places, even if that place takes its name from a person, in this case Lord Baltimore.

Several birds that live in and flutter around Pennsylvania could have new names in the near future.

The American Ornithological Society announced Nov. 1 that it will rename North American birds to dissociate the animals from namesakes with problematic pasts. Several birds, such as the Townsend’s warbler and solitaire, are named after racists.

Peter Saenger, an ornithologist with Muhlenberg College in Allentown, told PA Local the project could affect over a dozen birds that breed in, migrate to, or visit Pennsylvania.

The American Ornithological Society expects to assess about 80 names next year. Instead of judging on a case-by-case basis, the AOS said it will review all birds with human names. It plans to convene a committee that will solicit input from both the public and experts from various scientific fields.

The AOS has maintained a list of common, English bird names in some form since 1886 and is the scientific organization responsible for registering and standardizing English bird names across the Americas.

The organization’s president, Colleen Handel, said the group hopes the renaming effort will invite more people to bird-watching and spotlight the animals rather than the humans who peep at them.

“We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves. Everyone who loves and cares about birds should be able to enjoy and study them freely — and birds need our help now more than ever,” Handel said in a statement.

Judith Scarl, CEO and executive director of the society, said the project could help reverse longstanding biases among birders.

“Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today, and the time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs,” Scarl said.

Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, told PA Local that finalizing the names could take years. He said birds’ appearances or sounds could influence the new monikers.

“They might take it in batches. Do it 20 at a time,” Bonner said. “The process can take a fair amount of time to work through it.”

Bonner traced the effort to make birding more inclusive to the racial justice movement of 2020, when bird-watchers were among the Americans nationwide who protested police violence and reckoned with institutional racism. In particular, a racist incident in Central Park that year in which a white woman called the police on a Black birder was a watershed.

Audubon’s shearwater, a bird named after naturalist and slaveowner John James Audubon, is among the birds on the ornithological society’s list. The Audubon Society is named for the same man but decided to keep its title, a choice that led to resignations and local chapters going rogue.

Susan Bell, chair of the National Audubon Society’s Board of Directors, explained the organization’s name “has come to represent so much more than the work of one person.”

Reactions to the American Ornithological Society’s plan to rename American birds en masse have varied.

Saenger, president of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, initially disagreed with the move.

“I was thinking, ‘Who even digs into the history?’ I was unaware of the backgrounds of many of these people,” he said. “I was naive to the fact that these people did anything bad.”

Saenger said after reflection, he came to support renaming all birds instead of judging them individually. Not only would it be easier logistically, but in his own experience, birders are adaptable.

“When I started thinking about the names that have changed over the decades since I started bird-watching, we get used to it,” he added.

Daniel Klem Jr., president of the international Wilson Ornithological Society, said he is disappointed that mass renaming will affect historical figures with clean slates.

But Klem, who also teaches at Muhlenberg College, said he supports AOS’s decision.

“It’s good to eliminate offensive personalities affiliated with birds and replace them with more descriptive names to help us communicate better,” he said.

The name changes do not affect too much of the process for people like Brian Wargo, the president of Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society.

“We don’t expect too much of a difference. They have done this in the past, renaming birds,” Wargo said.

He recalled when the goshawk was reclassified as two birds, American goshawk and Eurasian goshawk.

“This one was due to vocalization patterns and genetic differences. They needed to split the species. Occasionally they will bring them back together,” he said.

Wargo added: “It is interesting how we grapple with our history … It is a complicated question. It is good we determine those things.”

Saenger, who has written a field guide on birds, said he expects the renaming process to be interesting.

“Birds have become an incredible attraction for people, especially during the pandemic. It will be interesting to see how people new to the hobby react to this,” he said.

The list below, provided by Saenger, notes some of the birds that breed in, migrate to, or visit Pennsylvania that could be affected by the renaming effort:

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