What’s in A Name?
A Crow, A Jay, An Oriole, A Warbler.
Birds depicted throughout Audubon’s Birds of America reflect the once-common practice of naming flora, fauna, and landscape features for the person who “discovered” them. The record of this in Birds of America stands to remind us of the colonialism, racism, and violence that marked the period during which Audubon was collecting and drawing American birds.
While the majority of birds in his books are named with descriptive language that helps identify them (information about their behaviors, as in Hermit Warbler; or about their plumage, as in Black Throated Gray Warbler), some carry the names of slave owners, anti-abolitionists, Confederate generals, U.S. Calvary officers associated with the genocide of indigenous peoples, and “scientists” whose work is now understood to be disreputable, damaging, or spurious.
A growing number of scientists and naturalists now advocate for replacing so-called eponymous bird names with descriptive alternatives. Many recommend the removal of all eponymous bird names, regardless of the character or qualities of the individuals for whom birds were named. A comprehensive change, they argue, honors wildlife and natural history over human endeavor and the will to dominate the natural world.
More about the movement to change bird names: What’s in A Name? – reading and resources.
Some relevant plates in volume 4 (pictured below): Plate CCCLXII (362): Yellow-billed Magpie, Steller’s Jay, Ultramarine Jay, Clark’s Crow ; Plate CCCLXXXVIII (388): Nuttall’s Starling, Yellow-headed Troopial, Bullock’s Oriole; Plate CCCXCV (395): Audubon’s Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler.
Plate images below thanks to The National Audubon Society.