Hammond’s Flycatcher

What do Baird’s junco and sandpiper, Bonapartes gull, Brewer’s sparrow and blackbird, Cassin’s kingbird and vireo, Costas hummingbird, Forster’s tern, Harris’s hawk, Cooper’s hawk, Hutton’s vireo, Lincoln’s sparrow, Scott’s oriole, and Wilson’s warbler have in common, besides being found here on the Baja Peninsula? If you concluded that they are all named after people, you are partly correct. But did you know that they will also be receiving new names sometime in the coming year? This announcement on November 3 by the American Ornithological Society, which is officially in charge of deciding North American bird names basically means that we will no longer call Cooper’s hawks Cooper’s hawks or Costa’s hummingbird Costa’s hummingbird.

It is a decision meant to dissociate these birds from what are called problematic eponyms. Probably the best example of this dilemma is Hammond’s flycatcher (found in the northern half of the Baja Peninsula) is named after William Alexander Hammond, a former U.S. Surgeon-General who held the view that the mental and/or physical faculties of both Black folks and Indigenous peoples were not much higher than those of an organ grinder monkey!! There are many other examples whereupon someone currently honoured with a bird named him condoned slavery, for example. I was actually engaged in a Zoom conversation with over 100 North American ornithologists and birders about this very matter three or four years ago.

I recall having strong mixed feelings about it because I thought that it seemed a wee bit unfair to take away the legacy of bonafide, deserving people like John Cassin, a former curator of ornithology at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, who has a kingbird and vireo found here in our region named after him. William Cooper of Cooper’s hawk fame was no slouch in the field of ornithology either. Costa’s hummingbird, the most common of its kind in our town, was named after Louis Marie Pantaleon Costa who was a collector of hummingbirds (incidentally, that means that he shot or trapped them for a taxidermy collection!). However, I also understand that to cherry-pick the birds named after possibly bad people could take years of bitter debate and that perhaps giving the birds names that somehow connect the person viewing them with a geographical and/or physical identity to help them ascertain the species in the field is not a bad idea.

The good news for those having birds named after them though is that the Latin names will not be changed, thus preserving the legacies of deserving folks who discovered or first described the birds in the scientific literature. The really big winners in all this, of course, will be active authors and book publishers involved with bird reference volumes and field guides because these name changes, once decided upon and written in stone, will automatically mean that all of the current books on our shelves will become as obsolete as the birds’ common names. Maybe not a huge headache considering that we are all headed toward electronic field guides in any case. And perhaps a small price to pay for doing the right thing in today’s society. David M. Bird david.bird@mcgill.ca