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Latin American, Caribbean ornithologists call for breaking down barriers

Banded Cotinga, barriers
Banded Cotinga is a critically endangered bird species endemic to southeastern Brazil, the country with more endemic bird species (264) than any other in the Neotropics. Photo by Marco Cruz/Wikimedia Commons

The field of ornithology systemically excludes researchers and research from Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a paper published February 7 in Ornithological Applications.

The paper, signed by 124 ornithologists (including professional scientists, naturalists, park rangers, and technicians) from 19 countries, also explains what the field should do to start addressing the problems identified. 

A major barrier to advancing ornithology, says the paper, is the marginalization of researchers from the Global South, meaning Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and most of Asia. Latin America and the Caribbean is home to 3,700 bird species across habitats from lowland tropical rainforest to the High Andes. It also includes more than 40 countries and a human population comparable to that of Europe. Yet the authors say peer-reviewed science from the Global South gets short shrift from northern ornithologists, a practice that stems from a long history of colonialism that scientists continue to sweep under the proverbial rug.

“Foreign-based scientists unquestionably contribute to the development of Neotropical ornithology, but exclusion of the Latin American and Caribbean scientific community is a long-standing pattern with deep roots in the scientific colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries,” the paper states. “Today, it is still common for high-impact reviews, proposals, and research articles focused on the Neotropics to neglect contributions, perspectives, and goals from within the region, often overlooking important developments and key barriers to advancing knowledge. This pattern is visible not just in Neotropical ornithology but across academic disciplines and across the Global South.”

Impacts on researchers — and birds

The paper explains that language hegemony, publication costs, and North-biased views of what is novel exclude many excellent ornithologists from publishing in global-scope journals and dramatically reduce the extent to which their work is cited.


The authors noted that reviewers and editors rarely ask scholars from Europe, Canada, or the United States to translate, learn, or cite theory and case studies from Latin America or Africa, but they routinely expect scholars from the Global South to frame their work in the context of research from Europe or North America.

The paper argues that such systemic barriers are not only unjust to researchers from the Global South; they are also detrimental to ornithological scholarship and bird conservation. Scientific rigor, the authors point out, is not simply the sum of individually rigorous research articles, but an emergent property of a collection of complementary studies from a diversity of regions and perspectives. For example, patterns of bird sexual behavior and nest orientation, initially purported to be global, turned out to hold only in the northern hemisphere when researchers included data from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Why Indigenous bird names matter

The authors added that the geographical and cultural richness of ornithological knowledge, and conceptualizations of birds, are inherent even in bird names. Indigenous peoples and other communities in Latin America tend to name birds for their behavior, vocalizations, or the time of year they are present, reflecting both knowledge of their ecology and an unambiguous method of species identification (calls and songs). In contrast, their English names, and, increasingly, Spanish derivatives, reflect broad, often ambiguous taxonomic categories, a general geographic location, or the appearance of museum specimens, which are not always useful and can even be misleading in field identification.


For example, in Mapuzungun, the language of the Mapuche people of south-central Chile and west-central Argentina, küchag refers to a bird “which leaves waste after eating.” Its English name, Patagonian Sierra Finch, refers to the region where it’s found and its taxonomy. Similarly, in Mapuzungun, fio-fio is one of several song-based names for the bird known in English as White-crested Elaenia.

The authors argue that ornithologists ― in the Global North and South ― have set back their own field by suppressing the rich and nuanced ornithological knowledge of Indigenous peoples and other communities across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Addressing colonialism in science

The authors of the paper recognize that there is no easy recipe to eliminate all the injustices in science that arise from centuries of colonialism, but they encourage all scientists to notice, question, and interrupt the systems that perpetuate existing hierarchies of class, race, gender, and geography.


“We recognize that some of the terms that are commonly used in the literature on colonialism in science will be uncomfortable to some readers,” the authors write. “However, we believe this discomfort is a necessary stage in confronting the history of our discipline (and our own participation in that history), so that we can grow and change as researchers and institutions.”

To begin addressing the long legacy of colonialism in science, they suggest that researchers worldwide ensure that they read and cite work from the Global South, especially work by Indigenous, Black, and Brown women. They propose that institutions should adopt new policies and assessment criteria that encourage researchers to step back from top-down positions and support collective leadership that includes people outside academia.

The authors urge global-scope journals to maintain or create options for free or low-cost publication, to offer the option of a submission and review process in Spanish, and to ensure that papers about birds in Latin America and the Caribbean include the full participation of authors from the region, from the design of the study to the interpretation of the results. They also propose that global-scope ornithological journals should adjust their criteria for publication with the aim to publish all scientifically robust and ethically rigorous ornithology research submitted by first authors based in Latin America or the Caribbean, including negative results and articles on basic biology.


Groundwork is in place

The groundwork for such change is already in place: Ornithology in Latin America and the Caribbean is now underpinned by regional institutions, conservation programs, and a rapidly growing cadre of students, professionals, and non-academics based in this region, who creatively propel the discipline. Today locally driven and government-funded research, scientific societies, universities, scientific collections, non-governmental organizations, community-science projects, international collaborations, and contributions from independent naturalists, birding clubs, tour guides, environmental licensing studies, Indigenous communities, and park rangers make ornithological research in the Neotropics possible.

“Colonialism still has profound impacts in our society, whether people feel comfortable with that or not,” said Letícia Soares of Saint Louis University, one of the lead authors of the publication. “We (researchers in the Neotropics) often enforce the colonialist perspectives. Field biology has such a strong enforced stereotype of having been pioneered by white European males. Disrupting this narrative should be a commitment of everyone in the field. Then we can walk toward acknowledgment, justice, and reconciliation, both in ornithology and other field sciences.”

The open-access paper, “Neotropical ornithology: Reckoning with historical assumptions, removing systemic barriers, and reimagining the future,” is available here.


Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing this news.

From May 2021: Head of AOS commits to ‘changing exclusionary or harmful bird names’

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