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Pikes/Pines | Canceling the Townsend’s Warbler

A Townsend’s Warbler in San Francisco (Image: Wikipedia)

I own dozens of field guides. Field guides to Pacific Northwest Flora and Fauna. Field Guides to the birds of South East Asia. Field guides to places I have yet to travel to. Field guides my partner sincerely wishes to never have to fill a box with and move ever again, except to a used bookstore or better yet, the dump. I love to peruse these satin paged compendiums of knowledge, these promises of where and when I can see a bird or a plant. Even the smallest of field guides — say, if there were a “Birds of Capitol Hill Seattle” — would be compelling.

They are more than mere guides to nature.

Opening field guides you see lots of things: descriptions, range maps, illustrations, and names, so many names. If you’re lucky, you might have a guide that shares colloquial names or indigenous names.

You might also notice a common thread.

While there are certainly a bulk of “Chestnut-backed” Chickadees and “Northern” Flickers, there’s also a lot of organisms named after people. And if you took a moment, you would find that the vast majority of these names are from dead white men.

I’ve written here and there about why our language matters, particularly in how we relate to the natural world. Who things are named after is highly relevant, and is in the public spotlight, with re-naming a means of shallow placation of social justice movements and as a real matter of importance when considering what histories we are celebrating and the future we’d like to see together. Bird names can similarly represent past traumas and renaming may well be in order.

Even as I write this, I can feel the exasperation. “Birds are just birds right? Can’t we just let this one sit… er, fly?”

While I understand the resistance to changing names of things that don’t seem to matter, I am also curious about this train of thought. Afterall, bird and plant names change for other reasons all the time: to represent two species that are now considered one, or one now considered several.

In North America, we’ve even changed names specifically because they were disrespectful: Long-tailed Ducks were once called Oldsquaws (an outdated, inappropriate reference to older Native American women) and Grey Pines in California were once Digger Pines (a slur against Indigenous people of the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas).

So, if we can get rid of names that are overtly offensive or change names because taxonomists approve, should we pretend that names associated with the waves of colonialism and slavery are simply fine? An initiative called #BirdNamesforBirds thinks not. Started by a group of ornithologists and all out bird nerds, this idea was not new, but seemed all the more important in 2020. Their goal is to work towards changing bird names to reflect the birds themselves, removing eponyms (after a “discoverer”) and honorifics (to honor someone) that frequently celebrate colonialism, slavery, and genocide. (I don’t want to jump down the rabbit hole of bird politics, so you can read about the #BirdNamesforBirds open letter and petition to the powers that be in North American bird naming here, and yes, I recognize that sounds slightly absurd and peak nerd.)

John James Audubon

There can be little doubt that the early work of people like John James Audubon and John Kirk Townsend have influenced the way many of us move about the world as people noticing and appreciating nature. And yet, they represent a very singular way of viewing the world, which was at best ambivalent to the knowledge of people who had lived with newly “discovered” and (re)named organisms for as long as there was memory. Townsend after whom Townsend’s Warblers are named, robbed the graves of Native Americans to study their skulls. Audubon, for whom a host of birds get their name, let alone his artistic fame, was a slave owner.

I will absolutely have a hard time not saying Townsend’s Warbler when I see one in the future because I’ve called them that for 27 years, but I would also like to not honor that history.

So maybe you are still struggling with this idea. Here are some common responses I’ve recently encountered in opposition. There’s the “a man of his time” argument, which is very, very is tired and no excuse. The “it’s too much work” idea is similarly ridiculous because taxonomies change names all the time and field guides constantly update. The “where does it all end” argument has an easy answer: when it’s done.

Despite all this, I’d challenge you to tell me why the names of say, Cooper’s Hawks or Wilson’s Warblers are helpful? How do these names aid people learning what they look like or their sounds? Common names are meant to be common ground, so why honor anyone at all? Why not name them for their descriptions and if other names exist in local languages, let them exist alongside? It would be silly to suggest changing bird names is going to tear down racist and colonial systems in our country particularly because the group who works to name birds is not particularly “inclusive,” but I still say we should start anywhere possible and work from the places we know. I know birds, so here I am dreaming of a day when Wilson’s Warblers are simply the accurate and telling “Black-capped Warbler.”

You may still be thinking that you have heard enough about this subject on a nature focused column and that it doesn’t relate enough to the Hill. The motivation for bringing this up is borne of a desire to engage as many people as possible in birds and nature on Capitol Hill and beyond. That’s why this column exists and why I have spent years writing it, however imperfectly.

As I write, smoke smothers our maritime skies in a less than vague hint of the real impacts mainstream American cultural connections to nature are having on the planet. This is not a problem to be solved by one group of people alone, we need everyone at the table. Maintaining bird names honoring old white men who did terrible things is not a good way to find common ground. Having names that help everyone take notice, find meaning, and in turn see relationships just might be.

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9 thoughts on “Pikes/Pines | Canceling the Townsend’s Warbler

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article. Many times I have wondered about these honorific bird names – who was macgillivray? – and am so curious to look into this movement to change names. My brain would appreciate being able to just say black- capped warbler for the Wilson’s!

  2. Brendan: Thanks in general for Pikes/Pines. I don’t have a real response; your goal was to engage, though, and I’m now engaged in the issue. That we didn’t *just* conquer but also explored and documented was a good thing, yes? Or is that exploring and documenting part of the white way of conquering?

    It’s appealing to name the birds after themselves. We’ll still want the whole scientific naming thing, won’t we? You’re just suggesting replacing the discoverer names, right?

    Again, thanks for Pikes/Pines.

  3. Have been a birder ever since a gold finch flew into a window and knocked itself out. I was able to hold it and observe the feathers and fine details. Not into revising history. You make a compelling case. I just might agree.

  4. There is no case here. To attempt micro-erasure of the legacy of men like Townsend and Audubon with the yes, racialist appendum “old white men” by un-naming birds? It is absurd. The movement to purify the historical record of anyone who owned slaves would also have to erase much of Africa, Portugal, Latin America, and the Middle East, where slavery was common for centuries. If no one who colonized land or fought wars to subjugate the inhabitants can be referred to except as a villain then we must revise the history books of every nation in the world. Show me a nation built without violence —? And please focus on saving the birds and the bees from actual threats, like pesticides, not the imaginary violence of their guidebook names.

  5. The suggestion to replace “Wilson’s Warbler” with “Black-capped Warbler” is interesting. As McGarry must know from at least one of the many, many field guides on his shelves, most female Wilson’s Warblers do not have black caps. For his attempted erasure of the female under the false guise of concern for the plight of oppressed people, perhaps it’s McGarry who should be cancelled.

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