Posted on September 7, 2021

Racism Lurks in Names Given to Plants and Animals. That’s Starting to Change

Jaime Chambers, Science News, August 25, 2021

With lemon and black plumage, the Scott’s oriole flashes in the desert like a flame. But the bird’s name holds a violent history that Stephen Hampton can’t forget. {snip}

Hampton is a birder and registered citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Winfield Scott, a U.S. military commander and the bird’s namesake, drove Hampton’s ancestors and other Native Americans from their land in the 1800s during a series of forced marches now known as the Trail of Tears. The journey killed over 4,000 Cherokee, displacing as many as 100,000 people in the end.


The oriole is just one of dozens of species that scientists are considering renaming because of racist or other offensive connotations. In a groundswell of revision, scientists are wrestling with this heritage.


“We can choose language that reflects our shared values,” says Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and president-elect of the Entomological Society of America, or ESA. {snip}

In July, the ESA removed the pejorative term “gypsy,” what many consider to be a slur for Romani people, from its common name list for two insects, the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides. {snip}


With the Better Common Names Project, the ESA now prohibits names perpetuating negative stereotypes, and welcomes public input about which names to change next. So far, over 80 insensitive names have been identified, and over 100 name ideas for L. dispar have streamed in, Ware says. With a “bottom-up swelling of names” to choose from, “everybody is included,” she says.


The bird world, in particular, has been reckoning with such legacies. Birds named for people proliferated in 19th century ornithology, glorifying the namers themselves or figures they favored. Today, 142 North American bird names endure as verbal monuments to people. Some names — such as Scott’s oriole, chosen by naturalist and U.S. military officer Darius Nash Couch — lionize people who participated in genocide. Others — such as Bachman’s sparrow, named after Lutheran minister and naturalist John Bachman — venerate people who defended slavery. {snip}

Since 2020, supporters of the grassroots campaign Bird Names for Birds have advocated for a solution — replace all eponymous bird names with descriptive ones. “It’s not a be-all-end-all solution” to removing barriers to birding for minority communities, says Robert Driver, an evolutionary biologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. But it’s one gesture of “consideration for everyone who’s out there with binoculars.”

The American Ornithological Society initially rejected Driver’s proposal to revise the name of a brownish-gray bird called McCown’s longspur, named after Confederate general John P. McCown. But after the 2020 murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide reflection on systemic racism and as some Confederate monuments were removed and sports teams with offensive epithets were renamed, the ornithology society changed its policies to consider a namesake’s role in “reprehensible events” as grounds for revision. Now, the bird is known as the thick-billed longspur.