Friday, November 3, 2023

Response to an e-mail regarding the changing of bird common names


Response to an e-mail regarding the changing of bird common names –


Flipping through an older edition of the AOU Checklist of North American Birds, it took me about three minutes to find a dozen scientific name honorifics. Based on that finding rate, I suspect there are at least a couple of hundred from North American birds alone. I have a sneaking suspicion that if one got into the avian taxonomy literature, some of it old and not very accessible, as well as written in German, Russian, etc., and found the original descriptions of those species, then dredged up any reasonable amount of information on the individuals so honored, you’d discover a range of personalities, including scoundrels.


Audubon will be an interesting case, given that he is now so famous and the National Audubon Society is so invested in that name. His role as a teacher through his art has been important in very many ways for a very long time. In my view, this struggle with an important figure’s past is always an opportunity to understand history instead of trying to erase it, so we’ll see how the NAS handles it.


There are a great many people who are also serious birders, with a significant economic impact involving travel, gear (including photography equipment, much of it high end), clothing, literature, seeds and suet, charitable contributions, etc. Among that crowd are some obsessive life-listers, who hopefully rely on scientific nomenclature instead of common names, even accepted ones. But there will be life list revisions and probably foul language in places, especially from those who are invested in common names, even official common names, e.g., those in the AOU checklist. From my career as an invertebrate zoologist, however, it never seemed anything more than an occasional literature inconvenience when scientific names were changed, synonymized, etc. After all, the tapeworm fans are not nearly as numerous as are serious birders.


I also belong to a couple of odonate (dragonflies and damselflies) groups on Facebook. At least some of the contributors to those social media groups are serious photographers, and the vast majority of them use common names that evidently are widely accepted. Some of them also take such striking photographs that I’ve sort of given up any hope of achieving similar results. However, as indicated in another e-mail a while back, one could join those groups then download their photos and end up with a truly nice digital field guide. The fact that odonates are beautiful, common, fly and mate (sometimes dramatically), and are relatively large, make them attractive targets for nature enthusiasts. So the odonate common name lexicon resembles that of the birds, and the odonaters seems to behave about like birders, but I’ve never seen a dragonfly common name based on a person’s name.


I’ve never gotten “into” butterflies and moths; I’m semi-sure that the lepidopterists are wondering when the culture police are coming after them and their common names. However, The Butterflies of North America (633 pages), equivalent to the AOU checklist, has no common names for any butterfly species.


Now, having said all that, the largest range of personalities is to be found not in the common names, or even in the scientific name honorifics, but in the describers. Sure, Linnaeus is credited with the descriptions of a lot of common North American birds, but once you get into the other groups’ taxonomic literature, you immediately discover a whole lot of names that you know are/were scientists, or at least acted enough like scientists to get an accurate original description published. On a statistical basis alone, I strongly suspect that among all of the humans who have described new species since 1758, regardless of the organisms involved, there are members of every group that for whatever reason might be demonized. Among the ones I know personally, there are a few ornery ones, but none are truly dangerous.

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