Dozens of Bird Names to Be Changed Over ‘Racist’ Ties

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) a Chicago-based organization founded in 2016 as a merger of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society has declared its intention to change the names of approximately 80 North American birds, arguing that names given to birds in honor of people are “harmful and exclusionary” and “clouded by racism and misogyny.

The announcement came after the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in May 2020, among others. Several states across the country removed confederate statues and place names in response to national unrest and the social justice movement stemming from the incidents. The society aims to address associations with historical figures who may have committed acts of racism, enslavement, or promoted harmful ideologies. This sweeping generalization overlooks the rich history of bird names and their cultural significance, reducing complex historical narratives to simplistic judgments.

One example of this flawed approach is the renaming of the McCown Longspur, initially named after General John Porter McCown. The AOS justified this change by connecting McCown’s name to “slavery” due to his service in the Confederate army. This decision oversimplifies the complex historical context, ignoring McCown’s contributions to ornithology. Furthermore, the AOS’s decision to change names like the Wilson’s warbler, Wilson’s snipe, and others is based on subjective interpretations of perceived racism and misogyny

McCown Longspur, initially named after General John Porter McCown

Adding to this debate, Sara Morris, the society’s president-elect, referenced recent racial justice protests, stating, “We have seen a lot of changes in our world in the recent past.” Morris emphasized the need to engage more people in bird enjoyment, study, and conservation, highlighting the reported loss of 3 billion birds in North America over the last 50 years.

“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today. We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves,” AOS President Handel said in a statement

Jordan Rutter, a birder who organized the petition for the name changes, expressed her astonishment at the society’s action. She co-founded the group Bird Names for Birds, listing men honored with bird names and describing their racist pasts. In a 2021 interview, she pointed out the historical context, stating, “White people are credited for discovering [the birds]. White people were the ones to name the birds after other White people. And White people are still the folks that are perpetuating these names.”


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