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Last Christmas Bird Count underway ahead of new bird name plan

"Anna's hummingbird" is one of 60-70 birds in North America slated to be renamed.
Robert D. McMorran
"Anna's hummingbird" is one of 60-70 birds in North America slated to be renamed.

The annual Christmas Bird Count is underway. The Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Count, now in its 124th year, is the nation's longest running community science bird project.

The birds people are counting, however, could soon have different names. As NPR reported earlier this year, the American Ornithological Society vowed "to change the English names of all bird species currently named after people, along with any other bird names deemed offensive or exclusionary."

RELATED: These American birds and dozens more will be renamed, to remove human monikers

UC professor of biology Lucinda Lawson, Ph.D., explains birds, in addition to their scientific names, are named based either on their physical traits or after a person. She says honorifics for people are problematic for several reasons.

"First of all, it tells you nothing informative, it's hard for learning, and it's hard to connect to those species," says Lawson. "But also, there was a lot of bias in who things were named after. So even if there was, (for example), an expedition which had a diverse group of people collecting the birds 100 or 200 years ago, only the white leader would get anything named after him — and it would be usually a male."

There's also the issue of birds being named for people who enslaved other people or names which are racist or derogatory to certain groups of people

RELATED: The Christmas Bird Count is back. Why it's increasingly important

Lawson notes that while this discussion is about bird names, the issue could spread to other species.

"We name frogs, we name snails, we name small mammals — there's Thompson's gazelle. A lot of these are named after people, and we can also think about if those should also have those names," she notes. "I hope that this name changing will happen more across groups."

The American Ornithological Society has said its renaming project efforts will begin in 2024.

The bird count is just about what it sounds like. People gather at a set time and date — this year it runs from Dec. 14, 2023 to Jan. 5, 2024 — and count as many wild birds as they can find within a defined area. Those results are reported to the national organization for analysis.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.