Why Names in Nature Matter to Us All

March 07, 2024

This column and photo were published in more than 30 newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Charlotte Observer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Sacramento Bee, and many more.

By Matt Witt

While hiking in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Siskiyou County near California’s northern border, I came across several colorful birds that were zipping around at high speed to gobble up flying insects.

I stopped for a while to enjoy these pink and green creatures and see if I could photograph them as they darted out of oak trees to surprise their prey.

But when I returned home to identify these birds, I got an unwelcome surprise of my own.

I learned that they are called “Lewis’s woodpeckers,” paying homage to Meriwether Lewis, a slave owner who was best known for co-leading the Lewis and Clark expedition in the 1800s.

The expedition he led played a key role in opening for expropriation the lands of this continent’s Indigenous people, or “savages,” as Lewis referred to them.

The U.S. president “has become your only father,” he told the tribal leaders who the expedition encountered.

Wondering why a bird species would be named after such a person, I learned that Lewis claimed to have “discovered” these birds even though they were known to Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years and were here on earth long before that.

I wasn’t thrilled by this name. And, apparently, I wasn’t alone in my dismay.

In November, the American Ornithological Society announced that it will be changing the names of Lewis’s woodpeckers and all other birds currently named after people.

That includes 152 species in the U.S. and Canada.

The change comes in response to a coalition called Bird Names for Birds that includes the American Birding Association and many local birding groups.

“It is a questionable premise that species should be named after specific humans at all, as if bird species were possessions or trophies,” said the AOS committee that recommended the new policy.

The AOS said it will involve the public to generate creative new names that reflect a bird species’ looks, calls or habits.

The committee noted that a large number of bird names that honor individual people were coined in the 1800s to pay tribute to “soldier scientists” traveling with the U.S. Army during the appropriation of Indigenous and Mexican lands.

By contrast, Indigenous communities already living in the West named birds, animals, peaks, rivers or other natural features in order to communicate something about their characteristics — not after individual tribal leaders or members.

Perhaps other agencies and organizations responsible for official names of natural features will now adopt that approach and follow the AOS’ lead.

The colorful woodpeckers I saw that day not only can snatch flying insects out of the air, but in the fall they also break acorns into pieces that they store in holes or cracks in trees for retrieval in winter when food is scarce.

I look forward to seeing them again on a future hike when they will have a new name — perhaps one that reflects their extraordinary survival skills.


Archive
January February March April May June July August September (2) October November December
January February (1) March April May June July (1) August September (1) October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December (2)
January (2) February (1) March April May June July (1) August September (1) October November December
January February March April (1) May June July August September October November December
January February March (3) April May June July August September October November December