Of all the havoc gypsy moths wreak – ransacking entire forests by chewing tree leaves bare – the insects are now at the centre of a battle bigger still: nature’s culture war. 

The species is now only to be referred to as Lymantria dispar after a review from the Entomological Society of America (ESA), which concluded that some insect names “may be inappropriate or offensive” – in this case, towards the Romani people. The gypsy ant has met the same fate, while the Oriental rat flea, Asian needle ant and the West Indian cane weevil are all subject to revision from the ESA’s “Better Common Names Project”, which is asking for the public’s help in identifying potentially offensive terms. 

This battle is not just applied to mites, but birds – and the birdwatching community – too. The once peaceful pursuit has all of a sudden had the binoculars trained inwards as hundreds of names of species of birds, which have persisted for centuries, may be scrubbed out of history due to their colonial links.

The debate was prompted by a petition in the US last year calling for the removal of eponymous bird names that celebrate the colonialists who discovered them. Two birds have already had their names changed: the McCown’s longspur (named after John McCown, a Confederate general in the civil war) was retitled the thick-billed longspur; another species of wildfowl previously known as the oldsquaw has since been renamed the long-tailed duck, as the previous moniker was deemed offensive to indigenous groups.

The group insisting on the changes, Bird Names for Birders, has received thousands of signatures on a petition calling for more “harmful colonial” names of species to be removed. There is even talk of renaming the 116-year-old National Audubon Society (the US equivalent of the RSPB) due to the links to slavery of its founder, John James Audubon.

Campaigners argue that eponymous common names are “essentially verbal statues” – and therefore must fall.

How Woke came for the insects and birds – EMBED 1

The debate is beginning to take hold on this side of the Atlantic: last November, the RSPB invited the London-based Flock Together, a birdwatching collective for people of colour, to take over their official Instagram account to raise awareness of “problematic bird names”. 

Among the species highlighted in the various posts was the Blyth’s reed warbler, named after the 19th- century British zoologist Edward Blyth, who traded wild animals in India to fund his ornithological work. Another was the MacQueen’s bustard, named after the British army officer General Thomas MacQueen, who collected animals across India and shot one of the birds, which he later donated to the Natural History Museum (a common practise at the time).

Officially Flock Together is not calling for the renaming of birds, preferring instead that their full history should be better explained alongside the traditional eponym. But one of the founders of the group, Nadeem Perera, 27, says that he would be happy to see some names go. “On a personal level I wouldn’t like to see any human being’s name given to an animal,” he says. “I would like to see nature described in terms of nature, not in terms of human history.”

Nadeem Perera is co-founder of the group Officially Flock Together

Yet the reality is that “there are hundreds of bird names on the back of dubious characters”, says Bo Bealey, a leading authority on the history of eponyms and co-author of The Eponym Dictionary of Birds. “I can think of one convicted paedophile, several murderers, a number of Nazis and very prominent American racists let alone those who wilfully massacred other people. There are a huge number of colonialists who were not nice people.”

The historian, 72, does not believe that any bird should be renamed, likening it to toppling statues and urging that “re-writing history is a very dangerous thing”. Far better, he argues, to provide more explanatory detail alongside the names.

The idea of eponyms was invented by the 18th-century Swedish naturalist and explorer Carl Carl Linnaeus, who developed a uniform system of classifying organisms through genus and species names. 

Over the course of subsequent centuries, as European powers colonised the world, it led to a raft of new species being named after the individuals who discovered them. There is little argument that the actions of many of those explorers do not stand up well to modern scrutiny.

One 19th-century explorer, for example, James Sligo Jameson (a scion of the famous whisky dynasty), has three birds named after him, including the crimson Jameson’s firefinch. As the only Irish officer in Stanley’s infamous expedition to explore the Congo river basin, Jameson writes in his diaries of leading a forced march of natives and drawing sketches of a 10-year-old girl he had bought being stabbed and dismembered by a cannibal tribe.

Alfred Russel Wallace, his fellow Victorian naturalist, is credited along, with Charles Darwin, for developing the theory of natural evolution and has the Wallace’s owlet-nightjar and five other birds named after him. His writing of his expeditions frequently include the n-word (common parlance at the time) and he also describes shooting “a wild woman of the woods” during an 1855 expedition to the Malay archipelago, and caring for her baby afterwards. Historians dispute whether he was in fact writing about an orangutan.  

How Woke came for the insects and birds – EMBED 2

Bealey believes the campaign to rename birds “is a bit of a nonsense. We would have to rename not just birds but a whole plethora of things which have taken on somebody’s name. You would have to go through with a fine toothcomb and find you are knocking off huge numbers of people because they were colonialist and ignorantly racist, as most people of power were in the 19th century.”

One of the birds in the sights of the campaigners in the US is the Townsend’s warbler, named after the ornithologist John Kirk Townsend, whose journals detail raiding traditional Native American burial grounds in the early 19th century and excavating skulls for scientific studies.

The British naturalists Barbara and Richard Mearns have written various books examining both Townsend’s legacy and the work of others commemorated in bird names. An updated version of their book, Biographies for Birdwatchers, is due to be published this year.

While welcoming the debate around eponyms and being “sympathetic” to removing a few of the worst offenders, the pair insist that they are against any wholesale changes. 

As they point out, airbrushing individuals from history because they do not fit a modern code of morality quickly becomes a dangerous game. For example, Barbara says, will in time there be calls to remove Sir David Attenborough’s various eponyms due to his extensive air travel?

“Why over-politicise ornithology?” She asks. “In many countries, a passion for birding and conservation brings people from different religious and cultural groups together to protect birds and their habitats. I think we would do better to treat names as accidents of history and work together to protect the birds.”

Yet in an increasingly fractious debate that is not enough for some. For campaigners, any talk that the names should be allowed to remain is seen as for the birds.