A whole flock of birds will get new names in the coming year, and bird lovers of all stripes — from casual backyard watchers to serious peepers — will have a chance to help. The American Ornithological Society, the authority on North American bird names and identification, plans to rechristen species named after human beings and include public input in the process.

The society’s governing council made the decision after years of discussion on how to handle birds whose English names may have harmful or offensive historical and cultural associations. AOS President Colleen Handel said that birders should be able to study and enjoy species freely without having to hear, or use, harmful and possibly racist names. “There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today,” Handel said in a statement. “We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves.”

Credit: Marissa Garcia/High Country News

The AOS English Bird Names Committee ultimately decided to revise all eponymous names, not just those linked to violent histories.

“We do expect the names to reflect aspects of the bird’s appearance, distribution, habitat or behavior — essentially names that describe the bird itself,” Jordan Rutter, co-founder of Bird Names for Birds, said. She hopes that the public’s involvement will spark creativity in the renaming process. “These are perspectives we haven’t had before and should allow for memorable and captivating new names.”

For example, in recent informal public polls to rename the Say’s phoebe, a small long-tailed flycatcher whose feathers shift in color from gray above to burnt orange on its belly, bird lovers came up with such evocative monikers as the mesa phoebe, cinnamon phoebe and sunset phoebe.

Avid birder Steven Hampton, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a retired deputy administrator at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, worked on the AOS renaming committee. He finds great beauty in the process.

“Birds evoke. Birds can fly. They evoke freedom and independence, and our dreams and our ambitions because they can fly. And that’s universal, I think, in every culture across the political spectrum. And so that’s something that we hope can be built on.” 

Want to participate in this renaming bonanza? Tell us what you think these three Western birds should be called.

Steller’s Jay: 

Steller’s jays are large songbirds known for being bold, inquisitive and noisy. Easily recognized by their charcoal-and-blue plumage and distinctive triangular crest, Steller’s jays give a loud and repeated “shook shook shook shook,” but they can also vocalize a wide range of other calls and even mimic other species. The bird is often found in the coniferous and mixed mountain forests of Western North America.

 Reader suggestions

Lewis’ woodpecker

Despite its name, this bird acts more like a flycatcher than a woodpecker; its aerial acrobatics are often stunning. Its pink belly, gray collar and dark green back differentiate it from the rest of its family, and it resides in open ponderosa pine forests and burned woodlands. Normally quiet, the bird emits harsh churrs in quick succession. 

Reader suggestions:

Lawrence’s goldfinch:

This North American songbird is a hermit that primarily resides in the arid regions of California and the desert Southwest. This goldfinch is light gray with a black face and lemon yellow on its belly, tail and wings. Its song is a series of high-pitched trills and tinkles, and it gives a distinctive “tink-oo” just before it takes flight. 

Reader suggestions:

Reader submissions will be updated through Feb. 29, 2024.

Image credits: Steller’s Jay photos: Steve Valasek, Steve Valasek, Michael Wifall, John Maschak. Lawrence’s Goldfinch photos: Alan Schmierer, Wendy Miller, Mick Thompson. Lewis’s Woodpecker photos: Joshua Mayer, Tara Lemezis, Frank D. Lospalluto. All images are Creative Commons via Flickr.

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