CultureEssays

Inside the Movement to Abolish Colonialist Bird Names

Last year, the American Ornithological Society accepted a proposal to rename a bird linked to a racist figure. And there's more where that came from.

Townsend’s Warbler is named after John Kirk Townsend, who who subscribed to the pseudoscience of phrenology and plundered skulls from Native American gravesites in the 1800s. (Photo: Nathan French/Stocksy)
Townsend's Warbler In A Tree

Last summer, amid a national reckoning with systemic racism, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) accepted a proposal to rename McCown’s longspur, a grassland bird that was originally named after Confederate general John Porter McCown. The species is now called the thick-billed longspur. It marked the first time the organization agreed to change a bird’s name because it was racially offensive.

That proposal, along with ongoing conversations about racial injustice, inspired Maryland-based ornithologists and birders Jordan Rutter and Gabriel Foley to dig deeper into the origins of eponymous bird names—the term for birds named after a particular person. They found that of the more than 2,000 bird species in North America, another 149 had eponymous names, most of which were assigned by European and American naturalists in the 19th century, at the height of colonialism and American westward expansion. A number of those names enshrine figures associated with slavery and white supremacy. 

It was a revelation. 

“I have been a lifelong birder,” Rutter says. “I took ornithology in college, did my master’s on birds, and I never got that information.”

In June, she and Foley wrote a letter to the AOS and its North American Classification Committee, the group that oversees avian nomenclature from Canada to Panama. In the letter, they compared the honorific names to “verbal statues” and called for the removal of all eponymous bird names. They then got 180 members of the birding and ornithology communities to sign it. It has since grown into a full-blown campaign, which Rutter and Foley are calling Bird Names for Birds, with a petition that garnered more than 2,500 signatures and an endorsement from the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy. The AOS is currently evaluating the issue. 

Some of the eponyms Rutter and Foley want removed honor enslavers like former U.S. surgeon general William Alexander Hammond (Hammond’s flycatcher) and the Reverend John Bachman (Bachman’s sparrow, Bachman’s warbler). Other birds are named after people who subscribed to the pseudoscience of phrenology, including John Kirk Townsend (Townsend’s solitaire, Townsend’s warbler), who plundered skulls from Native American grave sites in the 1800s.  

But Rutter and Foley say the AOS shouldn’t just stop at renaming those species. They want all eponyms removed, because naming birds after white people who “discovered” them is a fundamentally colonial practice, they say. They also argue that all of these historical figures are inextricably tied to colonialism, whether or not they directly engaged in the subjugation of people of color. “We cannot subjectively decide—especially if the adjudicators are White—that some names can be retained because they are associated with less abhorrent pasts than others,” Rutter and Foley wrote in an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post in August. “We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked.”

Only a handful of eponymous bird names don’t commemorate colonial figures—Klaas’s cuckoo, for example, was named after a member of the Indigenous Khoekhoen people of southwestern Africa by 18th-century French ornithologist Francois Levaillant—while others are of unknown origin. 

But Rutter and Foley also cite a practical reason for removing these bird names: eponyms don’t convey any valuable information that could help an observer identify a bird. “Instead of celebrating that a bird is unique in nature, you’re celebrating the fact that it was discovered by this dude,” Foley says.

Rutter and Foley believe the new names should reflect the features of the species or its habitat, as most bird names already do. “A red-winged blackbird—you know what the bird looks like,” Foley says. “It’s probably got red wings and it’s probably black.”  

Changing bird names has not proven so simple, though. Historically, the AOS has been conservative when it comes to altering bird names, prioritizing stability over other concerns. (For instance, name changes require updating field guides.) Ornithologists are especially careful to keep scientific names consistent: if you change a bird’s Latin name, it becomes hard to search through databases when doing research. That’s why Rutter and Foley are calling for changes only to common names, which they note are often updated for taxonomic reasons—for example, when scientists discover new information about a bird that leads them to classify it under a different species. 

The official approach to bird names has evolved over the years. In 2000, the American Ornithologists Union, a precursor to the AOS, decided to rename a duck whose original name was a derogatory term for Native American women. It’s now known as the long-tailed duck. At the time, the group said the move was “to conform with English usage in other parts of the world” rather than out of “political correctness.” In 2019, the AOS rejected an earlier proposal to rename the McCown’s longspur, in large part because there was no policy in place for changing a name based on offensiveness. However, the group revised its policy later that year so that an English bird name that causes “sufficient offense” could be changed solely on those grounds.  

In the past year, the conversation about bird names has taken on a particular sense of urgency. Last May, the discrimination that Black birders often encounter came to the fore after an incident in New York City’s Central Park in which a white woman called the police on a Black bird-watcher who asked her to put her dog on a leash. That episode sparked conversations about the need to make birding more welcoming for people of color and prompted initiatives like Black Birders Week, a series of virtual events that highlighted Black naturalists and birders. Rutter and Foley see their campaign as part of a larger effort to make birding more inclusive. 

Among the signers of the Bird Names for Birds petition is Jason Ward, a self-taught Black birder who hosted the 2019 documentary series Birds of North America and was recently named the American Bird Conservancy’s chief diversity officer. Ward believes that allowing offensive bird names to persist could discourage a new generation of nature enthusiasts from getting involved. “Anything that serves as a potential roadblock for younger, diverse birders to join the flock is something that I’m against,” he says. 

The AOS is currently determining how to approach the concerns raised by the Bird Names for Birds campaign. In an email, executive director Melinda Pruett-Jones told Outside that the organization’s diversity and inclusion committee has conducted more than ten “listening sessions” with stakeholders in the birding and ornithology community over the past several months, with a larger forum in the works for early this year. 

“We asked for their thoughts on the philosophy of names, the issues to be considered when changing them, and the effects of bird-name changes on key issues including research, recreation, management, and the publication of field guides,” Pruett-Jones wrote, adding that the AOS recently formed an advisory group on English bird names, which includes members of several existing committees, and is in the process of defining its role. 

Currently, the North American Classification Committee considers changes to bird names on a case-by-case basis. Anyone can submit a proposal requesting an individual name change. However, since writing and reviewing proposals for each of the 149 species with eponymous names would be time-consuming, Rutter and Foley’s letter asked the committee to use its authority to review all of those names collectively. “Right now, the only real thing that’s stopping this is willpower,” Rutter says.  

Rutter and Foley also hope their campaign will help spur changes to the process by which bird names are chosen, noting that the 13-member classification committee is composed mostly of white men. “It’s basically the same way that it’s been since colonization—a bunch of white guys who are deciding what all the names will be,” Foley says. “We’d like to see that become more inclusive.” 

Filed To: NatureNorth AmericaWildlife
Lead Photo: Nathan French/Stocksy