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McCown’s Longspur renamed Thick-billed Longspur

Thick-billed Longspur
The newly renamed Thick-billed Longspur. Photo by Frode Jacobsen/Shutterstock

The great longspur debate came to a conclusion of sorts tonight when the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced it is changing the name McCown’s Longspur, a bird named after Captain John P. McCown, the naturalist who first collected the species in 1851.

Rhynchophanes mccownii will now be known as Thick-billed Longspur after a decision by the North American Classification Committee (NACC). An email this evening from the AOS said the name change decision was unanimous.

The change was made in the midst of a larger push to have all bird species named after people renamed. The Bird Names for Birds movement, which has gathered 2,300 signatures on a petition calling for the changing of all honorific names, is itself part of the larger societal reckoning with long-standing racist symbols and practices.

As ornithologists and birders Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week: Honorific names, known as eponyms, “cast long, dark shadows over our beloved birds and represent colonialism, racism and inequality. It is long overdue that we acknowledge the problem of such names, and it is long overdue that we should change them.”

They propose that the birds be given names that indicate something about them — their appearance, their habitat, or their range.

Original proposal

In 2018, Robert Driver, a graduate student at East Carolina University, wrote a formal proposal to the NACC arguing that the longspur should no longer be named after McCown.

“McCown has the distinction of being the only individual who had a bird named in his honor and also served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War,” Driver wrote. “He led campaigns against Native tribes along the Canadian border before being moved to Texas to serve in the Mexican War. He later fought the Seminoles in Florida and served several other positions before the onset of the Civil War. It was during this time that he collected the longspur, and that [George N.] Lawrence named the longspur in his honor.”

In 1861, McCown left the Union Army and joined the Confederate Army, which he served for most of the Civil War.

The NACC voted 7-1, with one abstention, against the name change. Along with members’ comments, the committee noted that it “had extensive discussion about this proposal, reviewed external comments submitted to the committee, and solicited feedback from the AOS Committee on Diversity and Inclusion” and that it developed a new policy on English names due to Driver’s proposal.

New considerations

The new proposal to change the name, dated July 24, 2020, was co-authored by Driver and NACC chair Terry Chesser, an ornithologist at the Smithsonian, and it was written “in consultation with the AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee.”

The proposal covers McCown’s contributions to ornithology in the mid-1800s, including his collecting of specimens of the longspur, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Olive Sparrow, all of which were new to science. The document also gives a detailed account of McCown’s military career but doesn’t mention the campaigns against Native tribes previously noted by Driver.

The proposal then consider the longspur’s name “against the background of today” with the following reflection:

“Confederate symbols across the U.S. are currently being removed because of associations with white supremacy or a racist past that has rightfully been rejected. The continued use of Confederate symbols and honorifics ignores the propagation of racism and white supremacy that followed the Civil War and persists to the present day. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color continue to experience profound prejudice, discrimination, and violence.

“The names McCown’s Longspur and Rhynchophanes mccownii were not initially associated with the Confederacy; the bird was scientifically described ten years prior to the Civil War. These names are therefore not directly equivalent to the many overtly racist symbols created to recognize individuals for their roles in the Confederacy, often intended to perpetuate the racism associated with slavery and later forms of oppression. The social question here is more nuanced, involving the symbolism linked to this name due to post-naming events. Notwithstanding McCown’s accomplishments as an ornithologist and his eventual misgivings about the Confederacy, he is perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism by many in today’s ornithological and birding communities. This broader association of McCown with the Confederacy and what it represents has damaging ramifications for promoting diversity and inclusion within ornithology.

“Ornithology is not exempt from racism. Racial minorities are underrepresented as birders, naturalists, and ornithologists, as was recently highlighted by the Twitter movements #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackAFInStem. This underrepresentation is complex and multifaceted, but it is exacerbated by the presence of microaggressions, such as an English name honoring a high-ranking Confederate officer, regardless of when or how that name was originally created. There is obviously much work to be done, but removing an especially problematic eponym represents a step towards dismantling barriers for a more inclusive ornithological community.”

Chesser and Driver mention several names that could have been chosen for the bird and ultimately settle on two options: Thick-billed Longspur or Shortgrass Longspur. Regarding Thick-billed, they say: “The more prominent bill distinguishes both male and female Rhynchophanes mccownii from all other species of longspur throughout the annual cycle.” Regarding Shortgrass Longspur, they says that it “seems to describe the breeding habitat more precisely than” two other possible names — Prairie Longspur or Plains Longspur.

The document doesn’t indicate how the full committee voted on the two options or how it chose Thick-billed, but the NACC website should be updated soon with committee members’ votes and comments.

‘An important achievement’

Tonight I asked Driver for his thoughts on the name change. He replied: “It often takes some reflection to change your mind about something. So I want to thank the NACC for taking the time and consideration with this proposal. I also wanted to thank the NACC for including me in the process, and importantly for providing a template and map to follow for future proposals that fall under the ‘Special Considerations’ category of the English nomenclature guidelines. I wanted to thank the Diversity and Inclusion Committee for their efforts in the proposal. Proposals of this nature aren’t over, the effort it just beginning, but this is an important achievement and shows that our community has made measurable progress!”

Jordan Rutter of Bird Names for Birds shared her thoughts on the news as well. “This one name change is great to see, but I seriously  hope it is not the last, given there are 149 other common English bird names to still be addressed,” she says. “It appears they are continuing to lean into their current proposal-based system, which leaves concerns over who is actually doing the work to make these changes (i.e., writing the proposals) and that the committee is still composed of many of the same people who created a need for the petition.

“I and others are also still waiting for a clear and direct response to the asks of the letter/petition (which is now at 2300 signatures) — an acknowledgement that this group of names is a problem and a plan for how the AOS NACC will address this issue.”

In a July 8 statement on the AOS blog, the society’s president, Kathy Martin, said AOS leaders “including the NACC and Diversity and Inclusion Committees are working together to develop Society-level policies in our nomenclature,” and that they’ll announce next steps at the end of next week’s North American Ornithological Conference.

Stay tuned.

How the North American bird list is changing in 2020 

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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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