Nathalie Alonso, Outside, February 12, 2021
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.”
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.
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.