Vanity, thy Name is Eponym

The first time my (soon-to-be) wife Claire ever mentioned birding, we’d been dating for a week. She didn’t know that I’d recently become obsessed with birds (I was working in my physics PhD at the time) and I had no idea she was a birder (she was studying pronghorn). So when she mentioned one evening that she had gone on an outing with a local birding club, I was enthralled. She was dropping names that I’d only seen in field guides and never heard spoken: Pewees. Towhees. Solitaires.

“It’s a terrible name,” she said.

“What is?”

“Townsend’s Solitaire.” Then she told me why, and it has stuck with me ever since.

That conversation occurred nearly 30 years ago, long before eponymous bird names would come under scrutiny. As today’s birding community (mostly) aims to become more diverse and inclusive, it has been recognized that many honorees behind the honorifics had some less than honorable exploits. This has even led to recent action, with McCown’s Longspur being renamed Thick-billed Longspur. Having served in the Confederate army, John P. McCown struck many as someone not deserving of the inherent, positive connotations conferred by the award of a common bird name.

Not everyone favors such changes, though, and some disagree with the motivation behind it. It is unfortunate to see birding become another front in the culture wars, but that is how this issue is sometimes framed now. While the left sees the veneration of historical figures who caused misery or injustice as monstrous, the right will acknowledge their sins but regard them in the context of different social norms, their failings offset by any beneficial contributions made. We won’t get past this fundamental disconnect soon (or ever). But “bird names for birds” need not be a liberal vs. conservative conflict: I argue that everyone should favor an end to honorifics.

To find an opposing view, I looked to the National Review Online (NRO), home of well-written conservative perspective from the likes of the erudite George Will. Last summer, they published “Cancel culture is at it again, and this time, they’re coming after… birds?” by Sarah Schutte, which argues for keeping all eponymous bird names. The author previously wrote a glowing account of the joys of birding for NRO – so as one bird lover to another, I respectfully ask Ms. Schutte and her allies to consider my take.

I will not review the legacy of McCown or anyone else. One expects to find a spectrum of behavior among naturalists of centuries past, ranging from the despicable to the benign. We should recognize that enough gray area exists such that no line of demarcation could unambiguously divide those that might “deserve” a common bird name from those that do not. In a perfect world, we’d all agree on which historical figures merit respect (some of these great souls would be ornithologists, too). Our birds would carry only the monikers of the most virtuous. Yet even with the likes of Luther King’s Rail, Tubman’s Sparrow, and Schindler’s Finch, it would still be a bad practice.

“It’s a terrible name,” she said.

“What is?”

“Townsend’s Solitaire. Bird names should be descriptive. Using a person’s name tells you nothing about the bird. Not what it looks like, or sounds like, where it lives or what it does.”

That was 1993. Since then, I’ve grappled with learning thousands of bird names during our worldwide travels. And working as a college instructor, and in doing STEM-related volunteer work, I’ve seen that descriptive, as opposed to obscure, terminology is better for those attempting to absorb a vast new nomenclature. How could, for example, Black-capped Yellow Warbler not be an improvement over Wilson’s Warbler? A valid objection might be that our naming must have stability; changing the names of species willy-nilly could produce confusion; better to stick with the status quo.

This sounds right, but in reality we make name changes frequently. The Gray Jay recently became the Canada Jay, the (cringeworthy) Oldsquaw became the Long-tailed Duck, and so on. You may say that stability is more important for the scientific names, but even there, the terms evolve because taxonomic understanding is not static. Do you remember the warbler genera Dendroica? Parula? Wilsonia? I do. They were jettisoned not long ago. Stability didn’t save them.

Let’s turn to Schutte’s article, which begins, “Look out, Bachman’s sparrow. Because you were named after a 19th-century Lutheran minister with connections to slavery, you might lose your name.” A fine, attention-grabbing opening line; let’s take it literally for a moment. From the sparrow’s perspective, there is nothing to “look out” for, nor is it going to “lose” anything tangible. Changing the name of a bird must be the single, least impactful thing we could possibly do to it, compared to some of our other actions which might cause it to lose everything. We’ve already eradicated many species, and some powerful interests have no qualms about wiping out even more: consider the December 2017 opinion submitted by the Trump Administration that “incidental take” of birds was not part of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This interpretation would have gutted laws that protect at-risk species. I trust that Ms. Schutte, and anyone professing an affinity for our irreplaceable natural resources, were in vocal opposition to this proposal, which luckily has been rejected, for now.

The article continues: “How refreshing it is to know that because we’ve solved all of the world’s other pressing issues, the only thing we have left to fix is bird names…” This isn’t a good argument – not here, or anywhere. Must we explain that just because an issue isn’t the most important, doesn’t mean it isn’t important? Consider how we devote such wealth, and the time and skill of medical researchers, to seek cures for conditions such as blindness. Yet as life-altering as vision loss is, it is not the Emperor of Maladies: it does not kill; it can be mitigated such that the disabled may still contribute richly to society. Should retinal research go into abeyance, then, and its talented workers and their copious funding be directed at the clearly more pressing problems of cancer, heart disease, and other killers, until those are solved? No, of course not; we can and do engage in ongoing tasks of differing priorities, daily.

Schutte’s best work is where she argues that the individuals that advance our scientific understanding deserve recognition, regardless of what else they might have done. I fully agree. But changing a bird’s common name does not, and cannot, erase the established form of recognition in science that is warranted for any quality work: scholarly publication. It doesn’t matter when you lived, what you believed in, or what you did outside of your research; only your discoveries matter, and your place in history is assured because of this. I have published work in academic journals; I’m proud that my name is recorded next to my very modest contributions to scientific understanding. This system won’t be changed in the future, nor could some nefarious, retroactive Orwellian program replace every library bound volume so as to remove all references to McCown and company. There is a huge difference between (rightly) attaching the worker’s name to the work itself, in science or art (e.g. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; Beethoven’s Fidelio) as opposed to an entire group of entities (e.g. a species) that existed independently of any worker.

But the “need-for-recognition” argument to keep eponyms fails even more spectacularly because such names often don’t even refer to the individual that did the work. Schutte’s article, with what I assume is unintended irony, specifically mentions Anna’s Hummingbird. What kind of great explorer was she, this Anna? Well, not only did she do no fieldwork or description of this species, Anna Masséna, the Duchess of Rivoli, probably never even saw one of “her” birds in the wild; she was a French courtesan that lived her entire life across the Atlantic. The bird got the name as a tribute to her. Virginia, Lucy, and Grace were not ornithologists that worked on “their” respective warblers, either. Why confer these names, when they literally have nothing to do with the species or the research?

The answer is in Ecclesiastes: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

“This is a beautiful hobby,” writes Schutte, “that already does so much to unite, and these activists and organization presidents should be heartily ashamed of themselves for their ignorant, destructive actions and words. Certainly, the conservation of God’s feathered creatures is important, but turning this work into a nonsensical social-justice issue will not only cause confusion for people trying to correctly ID birds; it will also create division and destroy some of the joy that birds can bring.” All the italics here are mine.

“Ignorant.” This is has it backwards in several ways. The individuals and organizations that are overwhelmingly in favor of new bird names are some of the most active and knowledgeable in ornithology and recreational birding, including the American Bird Conservancy and the American Birding Association. This isn’t a fringe movement, and great care and consideration are going into it. Moreover, even though I find clarity to be reason enough for eliminating honorifics, the modern movement to rename birds also functions to reduce our ignorance. It is helping to expose certain dark corners of our history, especially places where some people apparently don’t want us shining bright spotlights. Isn’t it better to know the ugly truth than the whitewashed stories, such as those about Columbus I and many others learned in 1970’s grade school?

“Destructive.” Ironic hyperbole, coming from the camp with, unfortunately, more than a few voices proclaiming policies such as the Endangered Species Act to be nothing but regulatory burden. Again, while the charge of erasing history is an empty one, humans are all too adept at erasing natural history. The loss of the Passenger Pigeon and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker were the true acts of irreparable destruction, the utter ruin of scientific information that has no backup copy. But there is nothing destructive about improved bird names.

Confusion for people trying to correctly ID birds.” I have an old edition of the Peterson Field Guide which includes a bird called Holboell’s Grebe. Another extirpated species, perhaps? No, this bird is still with us, but the name is not. Modern books refer to it as a Red-necked Grebe. Which name is objectively better for people trying to correctly identify it? For new birders learning the ropes? Answer with a straight face, please.

Create division and destroy some of the joy.” Was division created and joy destroyed when Traill’s Flycatcher was split into the Alder and Willow Flycatchers? Thomas Stewart Traill didn’t even do the work on these birds; William Brewster and John James Audubon did, and the latter conferred the honorific to his friend, admitting Traill into that rarefied club with Anna, Lucy, and others who got a vanity bird. Should we right this wrong and rechristen these species as Traill’s Willow Flycatcher and Traill’s Alder Flycatcher? In Asia, we have the Blythe’s Reed Warbler and Blythe’s Leaf Warbler, so there is a precedent for such unwieldy names. Are the advocates of honorifics still upset about this one? Or are they only bothered by cases such as McCown’s, which simply had a motivation they disliked? If the latter, then it shows that they don’t buy the need-for-recognition argument themselves.

Schutte invokes religious language in her piece, and in writing for a conservative outlet, I assume she is a devout Christian. This is neither here nor there in regards to birding and nomenclature, but since she brings it up, let me say: I would have thought that those with a reverence for Creation would see nature as something far greater than human conventions and selfish concerns; that they wouldn’t want to belittle any of it by tacking on the appellations of glory-seeking mortals; that they would find the sacred depths of nature sullied by our vapid desire to plaster our own names everywhere. I’d have thought they’d prefer monikers that honor the profound beauty, that call out living beings for what they are, rather than hubris writ large.

Once, during a trip in Peru, our local guide excitedly pointed out a Western Striolated Puffbird (my terrible photo of this bird is at the top of this post). This was a recent split, with the former Striolated Puffbird bifurcating into Eastern and Western versions. He was just as pleased to tell us, his American clients, that the scientific name of this new species was Nystalus obamai. I can visualize how, over at NRO where our 44th president is viewed as something of a narcissist, a great many eyes would roll upon learning this. Just imagine if it had also gotten the common name of “Obama’s Puffbird.” Maybe that would have helped our conservative friends to see the naked vanity that lies at the heart of these honorifics.

The Boreal Owl was Richardson’s Owl until just decades ago, but nobody today is upset that Sir John Richardson was robbed. (Not only did he not first describe it, the same bird is called Tengmalm’s Owl in Europe. But Peter Gustaf Tengmalm wasn’t the worker responsible for the description of the bird either.) We can easily end all this silliness and simply adopt a better practice. And decades from now, generations of future birders will be thankful that we jettisoned opaque nomenclature and chose a parsimonious approach, emphasizing clarity over vanity. This is low-hanging fruit with no downside. Do you disagree? I welcome your opinions and would be happy to have a friendly dialog in the comments section. Thank you for reading.

6 thoughts on “Vanity, thy Name is Eponym

  1. Very, very well written. It doesn’t leave me much room for comment, but plenty of room for thought. I think that honorific naming was useful as a motivation for exploration when there were still many species to discover. Imagine the joy of hunting for, finding, and identifying a previously unknown species. Sure, not naming it after yourself wouldn’t take away anything from the experience, but what an added joy. I can also see in part the honoring of a person who funded the exploration. Mostly, I say “what’s done is done.” Keep the old names, but go by the new standards here on out. If we delve deep enough, everyone has some sort of skeleton (or an entire graveyard) in their closet. Thanks for the thought-provoking article! William

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. Do I agree with your views, well not really. I’m a rather ‘long in the tooth’ or ‘old school’ type of naturalist. Common names vary across the globe, for instance, in your Country you have the ‘Loons’ over here they are Divers which taking your point of descriptive names which is best?
    Your main point is those species that bear a persons name. This really does not bother me one jot. I couldn’t care less what the person who’s name is applied to a specific bird/butterfly/moth or what have you did/didn’t do to earn the distinction. Having grown up with these names, to me, I can picture that creature (if it’s a field of interest) by it’s common name. You mentioned Blythe’s Reed Warbler, a rarity in the UK but one I’ve been lucky to see, I have no idea who Blythe was and am not bothered but recognised the bird, however in the field it is almost identical to the Reed Warbler, not sure what description could be applied to either to separate them. Yes change the name and it wouldn’t take too long to learn the new but really why bother? It’s just a name and only takes on significance when the background of person involved is delved into but as they mostly go back into the mists of time does it really matter? Obviously by your post it certainly does to some.

    Hope I’ve made some sort of sense. I’m not from a scientific background these are just the thoughts of a layman.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for writing! I think you state the majority perspective well; most people are simply ambivalent about this topic. My preference for explanatory nomenclature comes from my deep-seated idealism that we should always be as clear as possible in our language.


      1. Explanatory nomenclature is great, I have no problem with it being used to name new discoveries (though in the case of avifauna not very likely). The problem comes when you have two or more species that in the field can look almost identical and sometimes can only be identified by call unless they have been trapped and biometrics or dna taken. What names can be allotted. As a quick example Pallas’s Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus) and Ashy-throated Warbler (P maculipennis), take away Mr Pallas name (who also has another warbler, a Sea Eagle, Sandgrouse and goodness knows what else bearing his name) what descriptive name could be given (that’s short enough) to separate them.
        I’m certainly not knocking your idealism, for the majority of cases it works just fine, however there are those that could cause problems. Maybe in time when all us old ‘dyed in the wool’ types are gone the new generations can sort it out to suit them but until then I would like to see the old names kept, I get confused enough as it is!


      2. I’d answer that there is always some difference in phenotype that can be used as a basis for a name. Using my example, what was Traill’s Flycatcher is now Willow and Alder, describing their different nesting habitat preferences; the two birds look absolutely identical. Even onomatopoeic names here that attempt to call out their very different vocalizations would be possible. When we lived in Asia, those Phylloscopus warbler drove us crazy, in part at least because half of them had honorific names that were as clear as mud.
        In any case, thank you for your comments, I appreciate them. The powers that can change these names will likely do so (or not) independent of our thoughts on this… my goal in writing this was to present a “non-political” perspective as to why I favor making changes.


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