Language Matters | ‘gamebird’, game bird, gamebird?

Yesterday Dr Mark Avery wrote a blog titled ‘A serious game…‘ asking an interesting question: should the term be game bird or gamebird? He was asking because, as he wrote:

…this is a serious matter. There has, for the first time, been a serious difference of opinion on strategy between factions of Wild Justice and its legal team.

The strategic matter under dispute is how to write the name of the group of birds in which pheasants and partridges are found. Are they game birds or gamebirds, or even conceivably, game-birds?

Mark Avery Blog, 27 Feb 2020

The blog elicited an astonishing sixty-three responses, and a poll Mark placed on Twitter hundreds more. Who knew people were so interested in a random question about terminology?

Now Mark’s question was really to do with the judicial review he and Wild Justice (and of course their legal team) are seeking in a challenge around game bird/gamebird/game-bird releases and how they may impact wildlife on protected sites (see Shooting’s ‘ecological assault’). There may be a current preferred legal term, and given how legal arguments can turn on the smallest infringement or technical deviation Mark and his team need to make sure they get the terminology correct. The entire case could hinge on it.

But there is a bigger ethical question here that this post looks at: should the term, in whatever form, be used at all? After all, wasn’t ‘gamebird’ specifically created by the shooting industry to designate some species as ‘theirs’? Pheasants, partridges, grouse etc are birds. Technically galliformes, but birds like any other. There is nothing in their biology to explain why we should accept some birds being separated off as targets for so-called ‘sportsmen’. There is no reason that the shooting industry should be allowed to justify slaughtering huge numbers of them under a false distinction that these are ‘game’ and therefore killing them for fun is somehow okay. It’s not okay, no matter what language you use to try and justify it.

I left a comment on Mark’s blog saying while I didn’t like any term that gave some birds a different (in reality lower) status to other birds, if there had to be a descriptor I preferred the term ‘gamebird’ – in quotation marks. I don’t like even that, but It’s been my way of expressing scepticism, shorthand for writing or saying ‘so-called gamebird’ every time the subject comes up. Mentally I imagine saying ‘gamebird’ using air-quotes, like when I say the shooting industry is ‘genuine about conservation’. Or that fox hunts go ‘trail hunting’.

I contacted Nick Weston, campaign manager at the League Against Cruel Sports, to get his take on the issue, as the League has been one of the few organisations to also take a position. He says the League uses ‘game’ birds (two words with game in single quote marks) across the board because, “the word ‘game’ is used by the shooting lobby to label birds shot for sport, which diverts from the sentient beings beneath the label. It is for similar reasons that we describe ‘trail’ hunting using single quote marks.”

This will all seem pedantic to some, but if we’re serious about tackling the war on wildlife (and we here at The War on Wildlife Project certainly are), then the language we use to describe wildlife is hugely important. Language encodes and externalises our thoughts. The way we use it expresses externally what we think about the person, animal or object we are describing. Sometimes we use language too casually, without questioning, and sometimes outside influences affect the words we use. Over many years, for example, we have been persuaded by agricultural and hunting/shooting interests that some wild animals are ‘vermin’, that animals need to be ‘managed’, that ‘culling’ is somehow an entirely different thing to killing, that ‘tradition’ is more important than modern thinking, that the start of a season of blasting Red Grouse out of the sky is ‘Glorious’. And that some birds are ‘game’, exist entirely so that some people can hunt, chase, shoot, trap, or just plain kill them for fun (historically for food, perhaps, but these days for fun).

How we describe this particular set of birds is an example of our use of ‘values-based language’, something that was discussed at the Wild Animal Welfare Committee conference last year. We tend to rate everything we see around us or interact with according to the values we hold: we decide that some things are more ‘important’ than others, for example, some things don’t matter while others matter more. We’ve been dividing up wildlife like this since we first started hunting or running scared from it. The problem now is that we – individually – are sometimes not the ones that are deciding what is or isn’t important, valuable, or worthwhile. It’s not our own values that are at play. When it comes to some wildlife the way we think about them is being handed down to us, and we are accepting that because that’s what we’ve routinely done.

Take foxes for instance. When did we as a society decide that foxes are ‘vermin’ and must be ‘managed’? They’re a natural part of a healthy ecosystem. A native mammal that is one of the last predators we’ve allowed to survive in our nature-depleted country. We’re not ecologically illiterate anymore, yet the agricultural sector still tells us that ‘vermin’ are rampaging through their fields destroying everything. If we’re to believe fox hunters they’re just providing a welcome service ridding the countryside of ‘vermin’ (that’s patently a way of continuing to fox hunt, despite their lousy hobby being banned since 2005). And of course the shooting industry claims to have a huge problem with ‘vermin’ killing ‘their’ birds – conveniently skipping over the fact that by releasing vast numbers of ‘so-called gamebirds‘ into the countryside they are actually providing food to predators that might otherwise not survive the winter. Foxes, they tell us, are a ‘problem’. They are – to use their heavily loaded and discriminatory word – ‘vermin’. We can do better than simply go along with that, surely?

So how about how ‘gamebird’. Surely, some people will say, ‘gamebird’ is just a word. It’s been in use for hundreds of years. We all know what it means. Why change it? Why even try to change it? Or even, you can’t change something like this, so don’t bother.

I’ve given the reasons why a change is needed, but how about that last point? We absolutely can change the way language is used. The racist, homophobic language used in TV sitcoms of the 1970s is rightly condemned now. We don’t use derogatory terms to describe people with learning difficulties. Thankfully value-based language like ‘invalid’ has largely been confined to history. There will always be those who mockingly decry advancements as ‘politically correct’ or ‘virtue signalling’, but they can largely be ignored: we are changing for the better as we learn more and question everything.

In our opinion, the same thinking now needs to take place vis-a-vis our relationship with wildlife. It is not ours to rate. Not ours to decide what to do with, exploit or use. And it’s not ours to separate or categorise based on what hunting/shooting lobbyists would like us to think.

Again, we can do better than that surely…


  • Header image, Common Pheasant, Becky Matsubara, flickrcc