Posted on August 10, 2020

The Bird World Is Grappling with Its Own Confederate Relic: McCown’s Longspur

Asher Elbein, Audubon, July 2, 2020

In 1851, John P. McCown, an amateur ornithologist and army officer stationed in Texas, shot a group of larks on the prairie. Examining his kills, he noted two examples of a bird he’d never seen before: pale gray longspurs with a small spot of chestnut on the wings and prominent white patches in the tail. After preparing the specimens, he sent it off to an ornithologist friend, who gave it the name McCown’s Longspur.

At the time, this was typical for species discovery and naming. In the 1800s, European explorers were rapidly documenting and naming animals new to them. As amateur and professional collectors like McCown pushed west into Indian lands, they often mailed bird specimens to researchers back east. Sometimes, ornithologists honored colleagues by tagging their names to new species, or named them after patrons or relatives. Today, 142 North American English common bird names are honorifics.

But McCown’s case stands out for one significant reason: Ten years after shooting the longspur, he joined the Confederate States Army, where he was ultimately promoted to Major General and commanded multiple armies by the end of the war. He is the only member of the Confederate armies whose name is borne by a bird.

Now, as American culture is embroiled in a reckoning with monuments to white supremacy—and when the birding world is itself confronting its own past and present racism—the McCown’s Longspur has become a central point of tension in a much larger debate about honorific bird names, colonialism, and racism. On social media, scientific listservs, and in petitions, many birders are arguing that honoring McCown enshrines the ideas he stood for when he fought for the right to enslave people and went to war against native tribesIn response to this public pressure, the American Ornithological Society (AOS), the leading ornithological society in the Western Hemisphere which hosts committees responsible for official bird names in North and South America, has promised to reconsider McCown’s Longspur’s name for the second time in two years.

The McCown’s Longspur name first became a public issue for the AOS’s North American Classification Committe (NACC) in 2018. The year before, a violent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia had spurred a spree of Confederate monument removals. The movement inspired Robert Driver, an ornithology graduate student at East Carolina University in Greenville, to begin flipping through an encyclopedia of bird names. “I knew that Abert’s Towhee was named after a soldier,” Driver says. “I was curious who these people fought for, and what exactly they were doing.” When he came upon McCown’s Longspur, he was startled to discover that McCown hadn’t simply fought for the Confederacy, but had commanded armies in defense of slavery and had fought in wars against multiple native tribes.

Driver then took it upon himself to try and change the name. Citing the AOS’s efforts to welcome and encourage ornithologists from underrepresented backgrounds, Driver formally proposed a name-change in 2018. “The AOS once again has an opportunity to pioneer inclusion and lead the way by changing this English name,” he wrote. “All races and ethnicities should be able to conduct future research on any bird without feeling excluded, uncomfortable, or shame when they hear or say the name of the bird.”

{snip} In a proposal filed in 2000 to change the name of an Arctic duck from the anti-Indigenous slur “Oldsquaw” to the European name Long-tailed Duck, the committee agreed to change the name for reasons of consistency but explicitly ruled out doing so for “political correctness.” Another proposal in 2011 to rename a Hawaiian species known as the Maui Parrotbill—which is not, as the proposal pointed out, a member of the parrotbill family—in favor of a newly invented name, Kiwikiu, which used Hawaiian symbols, was met with considerable venom. “It seems contrived, unfamiliar, unpronounceable, and lacks a long history of usage,” opined one member of the board, while another wrote: “For no other region in the world have what are the equivalent of local colloquial names been widely incorporated into standardized English names. Enough is enough.”