The naming of birds

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As Monday's NAEE news round-up reported, there's a new craze sweeping the woker – or should that be wokier? – parts of North America.  This is to rename birds.  As a blog on (essential reading) notes:

"North America's most important ornithology organization announced it would remove the bird world's own verbal monument to that history. The McCown’s Longspur—a bird named after John P. McCown, an amateur avian collector who fought to defend slavery as a Confederate general and went to war against native tribes—is now named the Thick-billed Longspur."

It goes on:

"That decision, one year after the American Ornithological Society (AOS) rejected an initial proposal to change the name, may end up being the easy part. The group’s North American Classification Committee (NACC) now expects, and says it welcomes, a spate of further name-change proposals as many in the birding community reevaluate scientific and conservation history through an anti-racist lens.  We’re really clear that we want to listen to diverse voices, especially those of marginalized groups who haven’t necessarily had a seat at the table until now, and work carefully towards a modernization of our nomenclature for birds,” says Irby Lovette, a member of the AOS’s North American Classification Committee and professor at Cornell University. “Where that’s going to lead, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s going to be a process.”"


"The Bird Names for Birds campaign, which gained support from more than 2,500 petition signers in July and August as well as an endorsementfrom the American Bird Conservancy, says that all of the nearly 150 North American eponyms and honorifics should be revised to make birding more inclusive. Some of these bird names enshrine figures who embraced racist and colonialist ideas and actions (including naturalist icon John James Audubon). Furthermore, many birds were “discovered” at a time when Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) were rarely if ever credited for their knowledge, and white forces in the United States were clearing lands of their original inhabitants and enslaving Black people. Very few bird names honor non-white people or women. "The history of ornithology is, in many ways, a microcosm of the history and the harms of Western science," says its website, where it documents many stories behind eponymous figures. "

Just so. Needless to say, in typical condescending, speciesist fashion, the birds have not been consulted.

I fear that anyone in the UK tempted to follow in their earnest footsteps may well struggle.  The number of birds that are associated with the UK which are somebody's is very small as we had the good sense to describe them as they are rather than after someone who was on the wrong side in the civil war, or who had shares in the East India Company, or whose family profited from slaving.  There are a few candidates, however:

Cory's Shearwater  /  Leach's Petrel  /  Bewick's Swan  /  Montagu's Harrier  /  Temminck's Stint  /  Wilson's Phalarope  /  Sabine's Gull  /  Pallas's Sandgrouse  /  Cetti's Warbler

I'd only heard of 3 of these before I looked them up.  So!  Come on you activistas, I've done the research on the birds, now for the people.  Just who were Cory, Leach, Bewick, Montagu, Temminck, Wilson, Sabine, Pallas and Cetti?  And what dastardly deeds did they do in their dark despicable pasts?  We need to know.

Over to you.


* My USA-based search engine wanted me to write "joker / wonkier" instead of "woker / workier".   Obviously it's well behind the [New York] Times.

Posted in: Comment


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