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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Bird, Animal Names Fraught with Cutesy and Historical Perils

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

   Let’s hope the American Society of Mammalogists is tracking efforts by the American Ornithological Society to rename all birds that honor people, and shouting, “Buck pellets!”

   If you missed it in November, those zany ornithologists announced that naming birds after famous people can be harmful enough to decrease “the focus, appreciation or consideration of the birds themselves.” If that’s the case, wouldn’t a good person’s name increase respect for the birds?

   But rather than evaluate each bird based on its namesake’s sins or merits, the organization plans to dump all namesakes. Isn’t that guilt through association?

   Already there’s problems. This action will strip the “Audubon shearwater” of that name because its namesake—legendary hunter and bird artist John James Audubon—owned slaves and opposed abolition. Meanwhile, the National Audubon Society will keep its name, saying its mission rises above one man’s history.

   The AOS policy also seems unfair to historical figures who apparently weren’t so flawed. Will those of us who love Baltimore orioles now question our affections because the bird is named for Lord Baltimore, whose coat of arms was orange and black? We might assume the worst about his lordship, even though he promoted religious tolerance while managing the colony of Maryland from 1632 to 1675.

   Likewise, should elk hunters who admire the Steller’s jay now scorn this dark-blue bird and assume its namesake, George Steller, was scandalous? That seems unfair to both bird and namesake. This German doctor and naturalist served on seafaring expeditions during the 1700s. While part of an Aleutian Islands exploration, Steller became the first ships physician to successfully treat scurvy.

   Earlier, while serving as a medical officer in northeastern Russia, Steller befriended the native Itelmen people on theKamchatka Peninsula. Besides organizing a school for Itelmen children, Steller learned their language, studied their rituals and ceremonies, and practiced their hunting and fishing techniques.

   OK. Back to the top. Why should a new bird-naming policy concern the American Society of Mammalogists?

   At risk of more historical shaming, we quote Thomas Jefferson: “Let the eye of vigilance never be closed.”

   The ASM must stand ready because we basically entrust this organization with the sacred duty of policing animal names through its “Mammalian Species Accounts.” These accounts give all the specifics on mammals, including their diets, heights, lengths, weights, genetics, behaviors, gestations, fur colors, litter sizes , fossil records and political affiliations. (Just kidding about their politics.)

   Name the critter, and the Mammalian Species Accounts will geyser details, no matter how intimate. For instance, consider the account on “Lynx rufus,” the bobcat. It notes the (female) bobcat has a “minute” clitoris.

   Likewise, the (male) bobcat has a “rudimentary” baculum (a bone in the penis). If that’s not specific enough, the account reports the baculums of six Oregon and nine Arkansas bobcats averaged 4.2 to 5.7 millimeters in length and 2.3 to 2.6 millimeters in width.

   Let’s hope the American Society of Mammalogists is equally invested in the bobcat’s name. Why? An online petitioner at asks the World Wildlife Fund and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to shorten the “overlong phrase ‘bobcat kitten’” and officially change it to “bobkitten.”

   The petitioner argues: “Bobkitten” is shorter, conveys the same point, and “adds another layer of cuteness to an already adorable animal.” Perhaps realizing most colleges don't teach “layers of cuteness” to wildlife students, and not wanting to be labeled a zealot, the petitioner added: “If it’s not possible to change the term, I would like to see ‘bobkitten’ added as an additional scientifically accepted term.”

   The petition, however, hasn’t sparked marches, teach-ins or viral occupations. Since being posted in 2019, it’s gathered only eight e-signatures.

   Still, the Wisconsin State Journal seems smitten with “bobkitten.” Within the past six months the Madison newspaper applied that “level of cuteness” in two headlines and articles about a young bobcat that apparently was orphaned, given that it was dehydrated, plagued by internal parasites, and infested with fleas and burrs. The newspaper apparently learned the term “bobkitten” while interviewing rehabilitators who treated the young bobcat.

   The reporters certainly didn’t learn that word from the American Society of Mammalogists. Its 8-page fuddy-duddy report doesn’t even use “kitten.” Whether discussing gestation, birth weights or birthing seasons, the account’s preferred word is “young,” as in: “Bobcats weigh 280 to 340 grams at birth. The young are born blind and remain so for three to 11 days.”

   To ensure the ASM hasn’t closed its “eye of vigilance,” I surveyed some trappers, wildlife managers and university professors to learn their thoughts on “bobkitten.” Their responses:

   — “I’ve used it tongue-in-cheek to describe bobcat kittens, conversationally. But I’ve never heard it used in a professional or scientific setting. I would not use it as an actual term. —Randy Johnson, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources large carnivore specialist

   — “I've never heard this term, but found it here and there with Google to describe a wild bobcat kitten. The ‘Furbearer Bible’ — the 1,150-page book ‘Wild Furbearer Management and Conservation in North America’ — gave several common names for Lynx rufus, including bay lynx, barred bobcat, catamount, cat of the mountain, lynx cat, pallid bobcat, red lynx, wildcat, chat sauvage (French Canadian), and gato monte (Mexican). None mentioned bobkitten. —John Olson, retired Wisconsin DNR furbearer specialist

   — I’ve never heard that word, and would say it’s not legitimate. Sounds like a writer trying to be cutesy. After all, I’ve written about rains producing good ‘Rabbitat.’” —Jim Heffelfinger, Arizona Game and Fish Department regional game specialist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona-Tucson

   — “Bobkitten is not a word I use in my magazine. When referring to juvenile bobcats, we use bobcat kittens or ‘young.’ I’ve heard bobkitten when people try to be funny, but it's a made-up Internet word or do-gooders with no idea.” —Mike Wilhite, editor/publisher “Trappers Post”

   — “That’s a new word to me. Typically, you would write something more biological like ‘juvenile bobcat,’” —Skye D4no, trapper and YouTube video producer

   Despite such scorn, one man thinks we might be stuck with “bobkitten.” Scott Craven, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, rolled his eyes and said: “I don’t care for the term. Cats have kittens, but a young bobcat is just that, a bobcat kitten. Bobkitten sounds cute and trendy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it catches on.”

North America’s ornithologists intend to rename all birds named for famous people in history, but wildlife professionals can’t prevent people from using cutesy words like “bobkitten.” — Snapshot Wisconsin photo

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