Date: 4/1/21 4:24 am
From: Matt Bartels <mattxyz...>
Subject: [Tweeters] Bird Names for Birds runs into an obstacle
As our technological capabilities have advanced, an unexpected obstacle has arisen to confound a worthwhile project. In the past year, Bird Names For Birds <https://birdnamesforbirds.wordpress.com/> has elevated the long discussion over how we name birds. After beginning by calling out the problematic behavior of many species’ namesakes, the discussion evolved to ask why any species should be named after humans at all?

One recurring theme in the re-naming debates was that bird names should stop centering humans. Before long, the natural next step came to mind: Wouldn’t it be better if we could just call birds by the names they call themselves and each other? As initiative co-founder Jordan Rudder said at the time ’the solution was right there in our name: Bird names for birds!” The goal moved beyond just removing human names to the bigger aspiration to call birds what they want to be called. Until recently, this was an idea beyond our capabilities. Then suddenly, technology caught up and the seemingly impossible became reality.

In the past decade, sensor technology has evolved faster than ever. Sensors are now increasingly able to record and translate brain activity into understandable thoughts, actions and yes, names. It was only a matter of time before a group of curious ornithologists adapted this work to ask ‘what do birds call themselves and each other?’

Unfortunately, once results began to come back, problems quickly emerged. First, when scientists uncovered self-referential names, they quickly realized that birds tend to be a bit dramatic in their self-evaluations: "It is simply astounding how many species of raptor refer to themselves as essentially ‘the bringer of terror from the skies’ said one researcher. She continued, “Essentially all passerines, even sparrows, use some variant of ‘most beautiful creature ever’ to refer to themselves. Hummingbirds found a way to combine titles of both 'most beautiful and most fierce’ into their names…” What became apparent was that self-referential names would never do the trick of distinguishing between species, because only a few titles were ever in use. Of the over 10,000 species worldwide, scientists projected that only 50-100 names were in use. Birds, it turns out, are not particularly creative in their chosen names.

The situation became even worse, believe it or not, when scientists looked at birds’ names for each other. The hope for more variety was realized, but another problem emerged. As one researcher put it “I never expected so much profanity….We just couldn’t begin to publish the phrases that corvids use for other passerines; shorebirds use remarkably colorful names to disparage the feeding abilities of sparrows, and tubenoses uniformly use horrible language to refer to less agile flyers. There was widespread disdain for ducks and their sexual exploits that led to vulgar names that, again, could never be printed in a field guide.” Human insults turn out to be some of the most mild of the animal kingdom.

In the end, Bird Names for Birds project is considering a name change. While less eloquent, the project may soon be known as “Slightly Less Problematic Names for Birds" or maybe the simple “Better Names for Birds.”


Matt Bartels
Seattle, WA



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