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A time of racial justice drives new push to rename birds

rename birds
Birds named for 19th century white men include (clockwise from upper left) Bachman’s Sparrow, Audubon’s Oriole, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Townsend’s Solitaire, Cooper’s Hawk, and McCown’s Longspur. Photos from Shutterstock

This summer’s movement for racial justice and atonement finally spurred Mississippi to remove the Confederate symbol from its state flag, Washington’s NFL team to change its racist team name, NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from its events, and statues of Confederates and other racist historical figures to be taken down. And those are just a few examples of changes we’ve seen in the realm of sports, corporate brands, and other institutions in the last two months. 

Will the names we use for birds be next? The practice of naming species after people was common in the 1800s, when white naturalists honored their friends, family members, or colleagues (often other white naturalists) with eponyms — birds or other animals or plants named in their honor.

Today, many of those names are fraught with ethical problems.

McCown’s Longspur, for example, was named for an officer of the Confederacy who defended slavery and also battled multiple Native American tribes. Townsend’s Solitaire and Townsend’s Warbler bear the name of John Kirk Townsend, a naturalist who stole human remains from graves of Native Americans. John James Audubon, revered for his art, nevertheless also owned enslaved people and collected skulls of Mexican soldiers from a Texas battlefield* — a fact that casts a shadow over the oriole and shearwater named for him.

A 2018 proposal to rename the longspur failed with the North American Classification Committee (NACC) of the American Ornithological Society (AOS). But this summer, hundreds of birders signed a petition and shared the hashtag #BirdNamesForBirds on social media to push the NACC to not only change the longspur’s name but also to address all eponymous bird names in the North American avifauna.

That would mean renaming about 150 species found from Canada to Panama.

In response, the AOS and NACC said they would revisit the longspur’s name and would make a further statement about honorific bird names during the North American Ornithological Conference in August.

“If we are to address pervasive inequities and systemic racism authentically and collectively within the broader scientific world, we must include all voices,” the AOS said. “We cannot do this work in isolation. We’re actively working to build an engaged community around this effort, which includes AOS members, global partners, the broader birding community, and anyone who has concerns about systemic oppression in the sciences.”

A request to acknowledge the issue

Jordan Rutter, one of the leaders of the Bird Names for Birds effort, points out what her group would like to see AOS and NACC do first.

“We’re still waiting for AOS and the NACC to directly and explicitly address the first request of the letter/petition, which is to publicly acknowledge that eponyms as a whole are a problem and an issue that needs to be addressed,” she says. “We haven’t suggested or focused on mechanics at this stage because we need to acknowledge the problem first. We know that it will take more conversations, time, and work to get birds renamed, but acknowledging the issue is something we can all do right now, today.”

Rutter noted that despite birding for her whole life, she only recently became aware of the problem with eponyms.

“I’ve been a lifelong birder and didn’t know the histories of these people, so it’s been a really important time for the education and awareness and raising so many overdue conversations,” she says. “We didn’t think twice about it. We just accepted that they were worthy of having a bird name.”

Over the last several weeks, the Bird Names for Birds website has been posting biographies of people whom birds are named after. The articles include details about the individuals’ often abhorrent activities.

“We completely acknowledge that this is not going to solve racism,” Rutter adds. “It’s not going to be the fix for social justice. But it’s something that we can do today.”

She emphasizes that Birds Names for Birds wants AOS and the NACC to act boldly.

“It has to be all or nothing,” she says. “We don’t want to be deciding whose actions were severe enough or concerning enough or racist enough to continue to have birds named after them. That should not be how this is done.

“There’s no reason why we can’t make that overarching statement now that we’re going to put our values and morals of inclusivity and the welcoming nature of birders, as well as the emphasis on the birds themselves, first for right now and the future.”

Getting involved

Prominent members of the birding and ornithology community who signed the original letter include ornithologists Frank Moore, Chris Rimmer, Kent McFarland, Andrew Farnsworth, and Stuart Mackenzie; field-guide author and BirdWatching columnist Kenn Kaufman; leaders of Black Birders Week and BlackAFinSTEM Jason Ward, Corina Newsome, and Tykee James; bird artists Rosemary Mosco and Shawneen Finnegan; and the American Birding Association’s Nate Swick.

Rutter says that so far, 1,925 people have signed the petition. Birders who want to support the initiative can sign it here. You can also follow the @BirdNames4Birds accounts on Twitter and Instagram as well as the hashtag #BirdNamesForBirds on the two platforms.

For now, while Rutter and others await the ornithological conference in mid-August, she says her group is hoping to see “AOS be the leader we know they can be.”

* Correction posted August 3: Audubon did not rob Indigenous graves, as an earlier version of this article said, but he collected skulls of Mexican soldiers in 1836 and delivered them to Samuel Morton, who ranked human races by cranial “capacity” and whose work is “now considered by most scholars to be foundational contributions to scientific racism.” See more from the blog of biologist and historian Matthew Halley

A version of this article will be published in the September/October issue of BirdWatching magazine.

Audubon, AOS leaders speak out against racism, discrimination Originally Published

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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