On Renaming Birds: The Dangers of Righting Wrongs By Erasing History

Susana Rinderle
13 min readJan 16, 2024
Townsend’s Warbler, The Cornell Lab, © Matt Brady | The Macaulay Library

Last November, I received an email from the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announcing a new development in the birding world. Starting in 2024, they would begin changing all English-language names of birds named after people, and other names “deemed offensive and exclusionary.” The decision was informed by a collaborative process sparked by George Floyd’s murder and Christian Cooper’s harassment, and the changes would roll out through an “open, inclusive, and scientifically rigorous” pilot program.

My heart sank.

I felt confused. I’m a lifelong anti-racist and 30-year veteran of the DEI field — why wasn’t I celebrating? I’m a ten-year birder, raptor rescuer, and field monitor — why wasn’t I pleased?

I appreciated the thoughtfulness and effort the AOS and its partners put into the English Bird Names Project. I recognized that changing the names of plants and animals is a common, ongoing process informed by culture as well as science. And I was on board with the AOS’s dual intention to “address past wrongs and to engage far more people in the study, protection, conservation, and enjoyment of birds.”

But still, I wanted to bury my head in my hands and groan, “Not again!”

Not again: A tremendous amount of time, talent, and energy powered by good intentions that won’t make a meaningful difference in what matters most. Our nation is an empire in decline facing crumbling institutions, widening class inequality, withering democracy, a splintering populace, waning international credibility, and growing right-wing terrorism. Our species faces existential threats from accelerating climate change, unbridled AI and biotech, ecosystem degradation, and the looming end of fossil fuels.

And yet we focus on renaming birds.

Not again: Activity lauded as DEI achievement, which in truth amounts to little more than slapping a coat of fresh paint on “rotting walls…in a poorly-designed building on a cracking foundation in swampy terrain.” “Addressing past wrongs” by renaming birds is the kind of myopic thinking that has contributed to our current predicament. I doubted whether the AOS had grappled with two critical questions: What exactly are the wrongs we want to address? And how best can those wrongs actually be righted?

“Addressing past wrongs” by renaming birds is the kind of myopic thinking that has contributed to our current predicament.

When done effectively, DEI efforts focus on oppression, not feelings. DEI should be about improving and protecting people’s lives and livelihoods, not eliminating all discomfort. The goal of DEI should be ending unfair inequities, not making everyone feel nice.

I get it — bird names matter because language matters. I’m a poet and writer, and I hold a graduate degree in communication; I get that language constructs reality, and creates and reinforces human beliefs and behaviors. And yet changing the names of birds to make some people feel better doesn’t move us towards what makes a meaningful difference for everyone: equitable access to healthy food, affordable housing, relevant education and training, dignified work for living wages, optimal health and wellness, and the ability to go out in public without being murdered.

To be clear, I’m neither dismissing the importance of feelings, nor minimizing the nuances, history, and validity of BIPOC feelings. I earn my living facilitating the processing of feelings, and most of my clients are marginalized. But if the “wrongs” the AOS wants to address are racism and colonialism, they’d make more of a difference (and gain more supporters) by advocating for racial reparations, partnering with BIPOC outdoor organizations, lobbying politicians for a living wage, creating a scholarship in Christian Cooper’s name, researching and teaching about indigenous bird knowledge, or joining other green organizations in forming and supporting unions. They could eliminate any inequities in their own organization in hiring, compensation, promotion, and retention, and recruit more BIPOC and underrepresented employees and Council (board) members.

Cooper’s hawk, The Cornell Lab, © Alex Lamoreaux | The Macaulay Library

Language and policies are, of course, inextricably linked. But focusing on language alone is a colossal waste of time, talent, and resources we can’t afford to squander. It amounts to hollow liberal virtue-signaling which leads to justifiable mocking by conservatives, like this inclusive language guide created by Colorado State University in 2019. It’s a mistake I saw play out time and again as a DEI consultant and organizational leader.

Leadership mistakes were also on display in the AOS’s initial press release which mentions that North America has “lost” 3 billion birds since 1970. The next sentence quotes Judith Scarl, Ph.D., AOS Executive Director and CEO, saying “To reverse these alarming bird population declines, we need as many people as possible to get excited about birds and unite to protect them.”

Not again: A leader justifying an initiative with a belief unsubstantiated by data, that ignores root causes. How exactly were those birds “lost”? Was public apathy and division the cause? What is the evidence that “getting people excited about birds” leads to population recovery? In fact, couldn’t it easily be the opposite? (There are hordes of Americans “excited” by the outdoors that are destroying natural habitats.)

And how exactly does Dr. Scarl envision people “uniting to protect [birds]” in a politically divided country that’s seen plummeting populations despite decades of conservation efforts? While her words are well-intended and look good in a press release, they gloss over the real issue. Birds and myriad other species aren’t being “lost”; they’re dying off due to human activity. The root cause is our “modern” lifestyle, powered by a diminishing cheap energy source and reinforced by an economy with a growth prerogative that is incompatible with life on Earth.

How exactly does the AOS envision people “uniting to protect [birds]” in a politically divided country that’s seen plummeting populations despite decades of conservation efforts?

Also, who are the people the AOS wants to engage and unite? Whose diversity is included? Their website states that “being diversity/equity/inclusion/justice (DEIJ)-minded” was an important quality for the project committee members. This phrase has left-leaning associations that alienates conservatives and the working class. Is their input not important? What about rural birders or hunters? And how will “offensive and exclusionary” and “harmful” names be defined, and by whom?

Not again: A DEI “conversation” focused only on, and driven solely by, liberal ideologies. Lest I be mistaken as a defender of the extreme right-wing, my point is that DEI should include everyone. In a truly equitable and inclusive community, not all behaviors are welcome, but all identities and people are. That includes people with different beliefs, values, and mindsets — even religious and conservative ones.

Therefore, in seeking to “engage” more broadly with the name change, the AOS may end up engaging net fewer people with this “woke” policy change, or narrowing the diversity of their support. To be clear, I’m not arguing that policy decisions should be made or avoided out of fear of the right-wing or the “woke” label. I’m pointing out that the AOS’s stated dual intention for the name change lacks sufficient clarity and vision, and may not have the intended impact.

In fact, it may have the opposite. For instance, while Townsend was indeed a vile individual whose disrespect for human beings precludes him from having any life forms named after him, I’d wager that most people sighting a Townsend’s warbler have no clue about his racist scientific pursuits.

And I’m not convinced that learning about his individual vileness is useful. How does such information serve, other than to upset, anger, and reinforce uncomplicated notions about patriarchy, racism, and our past? Those who say the name change “will require [birdwatchers] to reflect on our nation’s shameful history of violent oppression” are ignorant of the abundant evidence that such “reflection” alone usually backfires. Just ask any seasoned DEI consultant or trainer.

Bullock’s Oriole, The Cornell Lab, © Anonymous | The Macaulay Library

Calling out and ceremoniously erasing the names of individual bigots, however vile, is unproductive. First, it reinforces the thinking that individuals are the problem, not systems. Those who claim the goal of renaming is to “avoid recognizing historical figures with ties to slavery, racism, and colonialism” perpetuate a grave misunderstanding of racism that helps keep our caste system in place. In the U.S., we all have “ties” to slavery, racism, and colonialism. Second, this offers no new, useful knowledge. Adding another name to the long list of perpetrators of a collective crime we’re already familiar with is redundant. Third, it grants perpetrators a spotlight and renewed place in our memory. Perhaps, as in personal relationships, living well and letting past abusers fade into oblivion in unmarked graves is the best “revenge”.

Calling out and ceremoniously erasing the names of individual bigots, however vile, is unproductive. Perhaps, as in personal relationships, living well and letting past abusers fade into oblivion in unmarked graves is the best “revenge”.

I would also bet that very few people have ever turned away from birds or felt apathetic about the natural world solely because of what something was named. I suspect the cause is far more likely to be lack of green spaces nearby. Or the absence of positive discussion, experiences, or imagery in family, school, community, or media. Or having been unsupported or mocked for nature-oriented interests in school. These are the effects of “past wrongs” (and current ones) that deserve far more time, talent, and resources than renaming birds.

Again, I don’t disagree that language matters deeply, nor that renaming animals, streets, buildings, and mountains can be useful. The problem is focus and timing. The Left has a long-standing problem with lack of focus, infighting, and an over-reliance on consensus that’s endemic to oppressed and marginalized groups. We also have an obsession with purity that often derails our best intentions.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the cofounder of Moral Foundations Theory, proposes that humans are driven by a similar set of “moral values”, but that conservatives and liberals apply them differently. One of those values is purity (or sanctity), which motivates conservative concern with topics like sexuality, marriage, and race. Liberal concern with “purity” are instead directed towards issues like food quality and environmental toxins.

On the Left, moral concern with purity also applies to language. We want to purify our language of all signs of harm in an effort to protect. We want to purge the names of every racist in an effort to correct. However, when taken to its logical conclusion, this principled approach becomes absurd. One example is the movement to call poinsettia plants by their Náhuatl name cuetlaxochitl, ignoring that the Mexica were an oppressive, colonizing empire who arguably did more damage to humanity than Joel Poinsett.

Anna’s Hummingbird, The Cornell Lab, © Kyle Blaney | The Macaulay Library

The truth is that life and humanity are messy, and purity doesn’t exist. Singular focus on corrective naming is a futile enterprise that divides us further when we’re already deeply divided and distracts the Left when we can’t afford to be. We need moderates and sane conservatives more than ever to save our country from rising threats of fascism and violence. Is now the time to erode more of the few commonalities we share? To push an exclusively left-wing academic agenda in the name of inclusion?

Language matters deeply, and renaming can be useful. The problem is focus and timing. Singular focus on corrective naming is a futile enterprise that divides us further when we’re already deeply divided, and distracts the Left when we can’t afford to be.

Timing also matters regarding stress. Language re-engineering adds to human nervous system overload, and we’re already overloaded. It may sound trivial, but as a trauma-informed somatic practitioner, I see every day how most people are hanging by a thread. With all that we’re carrying and negotiating every day, is now the time to ask us to also shoulder the cognitive burden of renegotiating familiar words? And the grief of their loss?

Two alternatives

Despite the drawbacks, the AOS got something right with the English Bird Names Project. Instead of combing through thousands of bird names to identify those whose namesakes are deemed unworthy, they will eliminate all English-language names directly named after any person. This is a deeper, systemic approach to language that not only obstructs any past or future colonizer’s entitlement to claim a species that was existent (and named) long before their arrival, but also disrupts authoritarian and anthropocentric thinking.

How so? First, this approach linguistically abolishes our “modern” default programming to own and exercise dominion over animals as “inferior” species. Second, it redirects focus from the animal’s figurative master onto its own inherent qualities and self-hood. These are the sort of subtle yet meaningful shifts in thinking that might help address the roots of our human predicament, and move us forward instead of just censoring the past.

But there are additional approaches that can take us further. Besides combining renaming with substantial actions like those I mentioned earlier, the AOS could also provide space for grieving the loss of the old names.

Provide space for grieving

Our country, and white Western civilization in general, does a dismal job of providing adequate space, time, and support for personal and collective grief. I believe unprocessed grief, stuck rage, and weeping wounds are the actual drivers of many misguided DEI efforts, as well as the resistance to them.

We’ve had no truth and reconciliation commission. We’ve created no communal spaces for expressing grief and anger — no practices for allowing those emotions to be held, witnessed, and metabolized in community. Everyone, especially those with marginalized identities, carries centuries of unprocessed collective trauma, grief, and rage that individual therapy alone cannot heal. Those festering feelings inevitably ooze through the cracks on topics seemingly as trivial as the names of birds.

Everyone carries centuries of unprocessed collective trauma, grief, and rage. Those festering feelings inevitably ooze through the cracks on topics seemingly as trivial as the names of birds.

Names denote relationships. People who already “engage…in the study, protection, conservation, and enjoyment of birds” have an intellectual, emotional, and perhaps spiritual relationship with birds through their current names. When a name changes, so does an identity and a connection — as witnessed by multiple human traditions where we change or gain a name.

Change is hard, and most of us are overwhelmed with constant instability and unpredictability. A greater acknowledgment of the loss involved in a change like this would be respectful, connecting, and a profound demonstration of the inclusive, communal values the change is supposed to represent. “Giving” space for celebration, commemoration, and ceremony while “taking” away a name infused with personal connection could go a long way to “engaging, exciting, and unifying” everyone who cares about birds. It could also provide a model to other organizations on how to enact change in a more respectful, graceful, honoring way.

Thick-billed (formerly McCown’s) Longspur, The Cornell Lab, © Shawn Billerman | The Macaulay Library

Consider an additive approach

Another method of renaming could be an additive approach. Instead of changing the name, the AOS could add bird-centric descriptors to the old name. Instead of renaming McCown’s Longspur the Thick-billed Longspur, they could have renamed it McCown’s thick-billed Longspur. While this approach is unwieldy, it accomplishes two things. First, it reduces backlash and the grief of loss. Second, it leaves a monument to our past which can provide a teaching moment.

Because here’s the problem with an exaggerated focus on purifying language: when we erase the past, we forget the past. And when we forget the past, we tend to repeat it. The additive approach allows for preservation of memory without newly spotlighting perpetrators. It still lets past abusers fade into oblivion because the human names aren’t given a renewed place in our memory by being called out, but continue to decay organically and lose meaning over time.

Meanwhile, anyone who’s curious can learn about the name, and some groups might decide to provide this education. Auschwitz-Birkenau is an example of the additive approach. Instead of razing the infamous concentration camp, the Germans created a museum that allows people to learn history by experiencing the horror of our mistakes firsthand. In the U.S., Whitney Plantation functions in a similar way.

In older cultures like Mexico, Mexicans can’t drive more than a few miles in their capital without being reminded not only of their bloody indigenous forebears, but also of their colonial conquerors. In the U.S., our penchant for erasing ugly aspects of our history is a privilege afforded to us by our colonial ancestors’ erasure of people, places, and knowledge. Other countries have no choice than to stare the fullness of their complicated past in the face.

Our penchant for erasing ugly aspects of our history is a privilege afforded to us by our colonial ancestors’ erasure of people, places, and knowledge.

Erasing old bird names is like tearing down Confederate monuments. Although my father is from the South, I applaud the righteous intentions behind destroying memorials to brutality and white supremacy. But what might be possible if, instead of removing all Confederate monuments, we defaced them instead? Created art on and around them? Installed information plaques or small museums, and held annual truth-telling events on their sites?

What if, instead of purification, razing, and erasure, we obliged witnesses to see and remember the messy truth? What if we mustered enough courage to leave traces of our shame? If we built the capacity to hold the gaze of our crimes and complicated past? If we committed to leaving more monuments — in language as well as place — to what happened, and what we did, here?

Then, who might we become? What might be possible?

Ensuring we keep our word when we say “never again” is the right way to “right wrongs”. Maintaining reminders of what we’re unwilling to go back to can keep us honest and accountable — even when those reminders are as inconsequential as the name of a bird. And how we go about ensuring we never go back makes all the difference in whether or not we do.

Hey! Need support or guidance with equity or leadership? I can help. Just drop me a line, or book a call.



Susana Rinderle

I write about civilization, personal healing, dating, politics, and the workplace. You know, light topics! I'm a trauma-informed coach. wordswisdomwellness.com