RICHMOND — We were at the end of nearly six hours of Arizona birding when the guide learned I’d never seen a Lewis’ woodpecker.
We drove into a neighborhood, he dropped me at a corner, and he went scouting. And suddenly, on a big pine tree right in front of me, a pair appeared. Why Lewis? I now know that bird was named for Meriwether Lewis of Northwest Passage fame, who “collected” one in Montana and received the honor.
“Collected” in those days meant killed. And when you were the first to identify a bird and you were also a celebrity of some sort, your name might be attached.
It’s a practice that’s under scrutiny these days by serious birders who think perhaps no bird should have a people name. But, when it was the custom, Alexander Wilson was memorialized by five birds, and that’s how we know them today: he has a plover, a warbler, a storm-petrel, a snipe and a phalarope.
Even in human families that insist on juniors and III’s, etc., that’s a lot of namesakes.
Wilson, born in 1766 in Scotland, traveled thousands of miles, walking the lands of his adopted country, to find, collect and paint birds. Yes, he shot them, but he was just a man of his time. Serious birders know about him, but the virus has created lots of new birders who might not recognize the name that honors a man considered the father of American ornithology — the information he gathered eventually was published in nine volumes.
He’d be known as a dropout these days because, as Cornell’s Alison Haigh writes, he left school at 13 to apprentice as a weaver and then, because of his written protests of mill conditions, was jailed. On his release, he apparently thought emigration to America promised a better future.
In his time, serious students of birds did just what Wilson did — killed them and took the bodies home for study. In a boat off the coast of New Jersey, for instance, he snagged the storm-petrel that bears his name. John James Audubon, whose name now defines one of the nation’s great conservation groups, killed thousands of birds, stuffed them, learned from them and painted them — and now he’s honored with a shearwater. Like it or not, it’s the way it was done, sans scopes.
Dozens of birds bear the names of those credited with identifying them, like the Bonaparte’s gull honoring Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew; the Cooper’s hawk, familiar to New Englanders, named for William Cooper, one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History; the Blackburnian warbler for pre-Revolution naturalist Anna Blackburn.
Some bird names are quite puzzling. When a red-bellied woodpecker comes to the feeder, for instance, you see creamy feathers and black-and-white checkered ones and a red hood on the back of the head.
He’s named for a tiny rosy section that’s almost invisible under his tail. And why did the marsh hawk become the northern harrier, a bird that delights in soaring over marshes?
But, what’s ruffling feathers in the American Ornithological Society today is a growing number of their scientists protesting the old practice of giving people names to birds. They are focusing on some of the so honored who reflect colonialism and on the fact that Indigenous peoples had met birds named for Audubon and Wilson and Cooper before those men were born.
One piece of the argument was won this year, when the organization announced it would follow those who are removing Confederate flags and statues. McCown’s longspur, named after a Confederate general who also went to war against native tribes, is now called the thick-billed longspur. Not pretty, perhaps, but bird power emerging.