“So, I was looking for a black female ornithologist to study under, and I couldn’t find any. I asked people all over North America if they knew of any, and everyone said no. As a woman of color, it was devastating.”
Unsurprisingly, the #birdnamesforbirds initiative found a sympathetic ear in Martinez. The Bird Names for Birds initiative, which has come to the fore in the bird world in the wake of last year’s racial justice protests and Black Birders Week, is based on the idea that birds should not be named after individual people, a practice called “honorific” or eponymous naming.
At the most basic level, honorific names perpetuate the racist and sexist notion that the field of biology is the realm of white men, something Martinez sees as a reason there are so few women like her to look up to in her field. Of the 149 birds of North America that have honorific names, all of them are named after white people. Whether they were named after the “discoverer” of the birds (Wilson’s Warbler, for example, named by Alexander Wilson) or in honor of someone else (like Franklin’s Gull, named in honor of the leader of a scientific expedition), these birds were all named in a time and place where only white men were allowed to be in these positions of power and privilege.
The naming of birds in occupied lands also stinks of colonialism to Jordan E. Rutter, one of the co-founders of the initiative. “If you look at hotspots across the world for eponymous names, they are all in colonial areas, where white colonizers really took the opportunity to ‘claim’ these birds by naming them after themselves, regardless of the names that were used by the indigenous people of those areas.”
Specifically, however, Bird Names for Birds also points out that many of the individuals these birds were named for were deeply problematic in their own right. Many were slave owners, and others had records of racist writings, or crimes against native peoples. To raise awareness of these histories, Rutter and others have created a website (birdnamesforbirds.wordpress.com) that features biographies of some of the more well-known and problematic historical figures with birds named after them, including John Kirk Townsend, and, yes, John James Audubon.
The first victory in the fight to rename birds, which has been simmering for years, came this summer, when the North American Classification Committee, the organization that oversees the naming of North American birds (generally based on renaming for taxonomic purposes), voted to rename the Thick-billed Longspur, previously known as McCown’s Longspur, after a long and passionate online campaign highlighted McCown’s history as a Confederate officer.
“I’m glad they changed that name. But our goal is for all of them to change,” Rutter says. “There simply isn’t any value to honorific names. We get lots of criticism online, saying it’s erasing our history, but can anyone say who Cooper’s Hawk was named after, beyond it being a white man?” Rutter is realistic that if each name is to be changed in the current snail’s pace process, it would take decades to change them all. But she also points to the example of Sweden, that changed all of the Swedish honorific names in one fell swoop after coming to terms with the problems of eponymous names.
Martinez agrees, also using the example of the Cooper’s Hawk as a name that tells us nothing about it, comparing it to names that are descriptive. “Changing away from honorific just makes it easier: a Blue Jay is a jay that is blue…So on the one hand it is more practical, but also it would make birding more inclusive. I’m terrible at birding by ear, so having more onomatopeias (in bird names) would be amazing!”
To Martinez, the individual names are emblematic of a larger problem. “We need a more diverse NACC,” she says. “It is a panel of 11 white people, who originally voted to keep the McCown’s name, and then bowed to pressure [to change the name]…But it’s still the same people.”
Martinez is well known to her many followers on Twitter (where she is a vocal proponent of the initiative) as effervescent, always seeming to smile through her tweets about “dinosaur floofs,” as she calls the fledgling Brown Pelicans she studies. And true to form, she ends our conversation on a positive note.
“I am really hopeful that in my lifetime that we will see all of these names change, so that the next generation of birders or ornithologists don’t have these stereotypes reinforced. And I’m hopeful that non-BIPOC folks will recognize that this really impacts people, even if it’s not them that it impacts.”