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Reckoning with the Racist Past of Bird Names

Update: On Friday August 7, the American Ornithological Society’s North American Classification Committee announced via an email to society members, that a formal change was made to rename the McCown’s Longspur, Rhynchophanes mccownii, the Thick-billed Longspur. Bird Names for Birds’ website says the group supports the name change, and is “cautiously optimistic about what will happen next, given there are overarching issues that still need to be addressed and 149 other eponymous bird names in North America alone that need to be reviewed.”

Amid protests over racism and inequality over the last months, Confederate statues and similar markers across the U.S. have been removed — some quietly, in the middle of the night, and some toppled by crowds. A similar reckoning is happening in the bird world when it comes to eponymous and honorific English common bird names — human names placed on birds, either to honor or memorialize someone.

“They’re essentially verbal statues for birds and the bird community, because these mostly white men were part of a really dark time in our history,” said Jordan Rutter, who is helping lead an initiative with co-founder Gabriel Foley and others in the birding community, called Bird Names for BirdsRutter has a Master’s degree in ornithology, and has been birding as long as she can remember. 

LISTEN to the interview with Jordan Rutter and comments from Irby Lovette

About 150 birds in North America are named for people, including Bachman’s sparrow. According to The CornellLab’s All About Birds page about the species, John James Audubon named the bird for Reverend John Bachman in 1834.

Bachman's sparrow

Bachman’s Sparrow was named for Rev. John Bachman, who espoused white supremacy. Photo: Don Faulkner / Flickr

According to Rutter, Bachman was a Lutheran pastor who promoted white supremacy. “Some folks have said that he was just part of the times — that was the era he was living in,” Rutter said. “I don’t think that is a reason to continue honoring him today.”

Other birds have been named for slaveholders, and men who robbed the gravesites of Indigenous people.

See the full list of birds named for people 

The Bird Names for Birds initiative is petitioning the American Ornithological Society (AOS) “to acknowledge the issue of eponymous and honorific common names, to outline a plan to change harmful common names, and to prioritize the implementation of this plan.” 

“Some folks have said that he was just part of the times…I don’t think that is a reason to continue honoring him today.”

“It is our opinion that the mostly white group of people, both on the committee and in the bird community, can not make a decision of what is considered too racist or racist enough for a name to be removed,” Rutter said. “It needs to be all of them.”

McCown’s Longspur Sparked Calls for Changing Names

Irby Lovette, an ornithologist at Cornell University, and a member of AOS’s North American Classification Committee (NACC), said members of the committee share a lot of the same philosophy and values with the Bird Names For Birds initiative. During his time serving on the committee, Lovette said he hadn’t seen a proposal to change a bird name focused on social justice — until the proposal by Robert Driver in 2018 to change the name of McCown’s longspur, a bird named for an amateur ornithologist and general in the Confederate army.

Confederat General John Porter McCown.

John Porter McCown was involved in forcible relocations of Native Americans during the 1840s, and left the United States Army to serve as a Confederate general.  Photo: Library of Congress

At the time the committee didn’t have guidelines or policies on how to change a bird name on the grounds of racism or offensiveness. Instead, the philosophy, dating back to the 1980s, was that the committee didn’t improve names, otherwise there would be a never-ending process of proposals and name changes that would create instability. 

The NACC rejected the initial proposal to rename McCown’s longspur, but Lovette said it was the catalyst for new guidelines announced in October 2019, which include language, like “present-day social standards,” that provides a pathway to changing eponymous bird names on the basis of social justice.

In June, AOS announced the committee will reconsider the name McCown’s longspur, “motivated by a change in social perception on racial issues, particularly in recent weeks.”

“I mean, how could we not be influenced by these things?” Lovette said. “I can’t speak for the committee on this, but I can speak for myself. My sense of what’s right or wrong on these bird names has shifted a little bit, and it’s come from lots of inputs from people — talking to people with different backgrounds to my own.”

Challenges to Name Changes

According to Lovette, the human names of individuals can’t live up to the wonder of birds, anyway, and on that level, he wishes eponyms never existed.

“But they do, and they’re a deep part of our history — which shouldn’t be a reason for keeping them,” Lovette said. “But they’re also part of our communication structure.” He said a shift to removing all eponymous bird names would be a challenge for stakeholders, and the merits of it have to be weighed against the disruption it could cause.

“It’s hard to know where to draw that line.”

In addition, there are other common bird names that are not inclusive, like flesh-footed shearwater, a bird with pinkish feet and a name that assumes all flesh is that color. Other birds have geographic descriptors, which are themselves eponymous.  

“It’s hard to know where to draw that line,” Lovette said, “because the eponyms themselves grade into other issues really fast.” 

Lovette said he can’t predict where the committee will come out on drawing that line, but right now, anyone can propose bird name changes to the committee. He would also like to see improvements to their website which would allow anyone to comment on the proposals as they are being decided. 

A Chance to Educate

While the Bird Names for Birds initiative isn’t pushing for particular solutions or suggesting the mechanics of how bird names should be changed, Rutter said removing eponymous bird names opens up an educational opportunity, and could help clue the people into the conservation needs of these birds.

“There’s been lots of ideas moving forward in terms of using historical names,” Rutter said. “So, for example, Kirkland’s warbler is also previously known as jack pine warbler, which you could say is a great alternative name because jack pine is the very specific habitat where it breeds.”

But most importantly for Rutter, Bird Names For Birds removes a barrier of racist and colonialist language for non-white birders.

“We want them to be able to enjoy birds, and not have to have the shadows of these names constantly there,” Rutter said.

Top photo: McCown’s Longspur is found in wide-open spaces of shortgrass prairies, shown here at the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado. The bird is named after an amateur ornithologist who later became a Confederate general. Photo: Bettina Arrigoni / Flickr

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