Say Goodbye to America’s Racist Birds

Say Goodbye to America’s Racist Birds

Say ‘see ya’ to Scott’s oriole, a black and yellow bird native to the Southwestern U.S. The bird isn’t going anywhere—but its moniker is to be nixed, along with the terms for many other birds named for individuals with less-than-illustrious histories.

The American Ornithological Society, an organisation dedicated to the understanding and conservation of birds, announced that the renaming effort will begin next year, with an initial focus on between 70 and 80 birds that are mostly found in the United States and Canada.

“There is power in a name, and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today,” said Colleen Handel, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the society’s president, in the release. “We need a much more inclusive and engaging scientific process that focuses attention on the unique features and beauty of the birds themselves.”

In the release, the society demarcated three guideposts for naming birds in the future: first, that all birds in its jurisdiction named for people will be renamed, as well as those with “other names deemed offensive and exclusionary.” Second, the society committed to setting up a diverse committee of experts to determine the species’ new common names. Third, the society stated it would actively involve the public in the determination of the animals’ new names.

The society took action following the creation of a petition by Bird Names for Birds, a group seeking to change the common names for birds whose namesakes “have objectively horrible pasts,” according to their website. The petition called for the society to address the naming issue and garnered more than 2,500 signatures. The society kicked off its English Bird Names Project to consider the matter; the ad hoc committee established to deliver recommendations to the society published them here.

“As scientists, we work to eliminate bias in science. But there has been historic bias in how birds are named, and who might have a bird named in their honour,” said Judith Scarl, the society’s executive director and CEO, in the same statement. “Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today, and the time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs.”

Naturalism in North America went hand-in-hand with colonialism, as Western scientists went about classifying and taxonomizing creatures across the continent over the last couple of centuries. Perhaps no naturalist had greater influence on American ornithology than John James Audubon, whose slave-owning and data-falsifying legacies are still being grappled with.

Animals are dubbed and re-dubbed with regularity. Last year, the Entomological Society of America decided that the northern giant hornet would be the new name for V. mandarinia, the so-called murder hornets that had established themselves in the Pacific Northwest. (The wasp was previously known as the Asian giant hornet.) The society also gave L. dispar the common name “spongy moth,” to replace its former name, which included a slur used for Romani people.

But the society also noted the need to rename three non-eponymous species: the flesh-footed shearwater, the Eskimo curlew, and the Inca dove, whose name is “widely considered to be given in error,” as “the name of this North American endemic species seems to arise from profound confusion of the geographic locations of the historic Inca and Aztec cultures.” Better late than never to correct a geographic misnomer.

The flesh-footed shearwater, whose feet don’t look like all people’s flesh.

Most of the eponyms to be stripped belong to white dudes of yore, like Winfield Scott, John Bachman, Thomas Bewick, Thomas Say, Meriwether Lewis, William Gambel, Georg Wilhelm Steller (also the namesake of the extinct Steller’s sea cow), Alexander Wilson, William Cooper… you get the idea. Some were ornithologists, some were Confederate generals. Some were women—Anna’s hummingbird, for example, is named for a courtier to Empress Eugénie of France.

The American Ornithological Society opted to strip all names from these birds, rather than splitting hairs—or feathers—over which namesake did what and why, and whose actions are acceptable through a shifting window of morality and ethics over the intervening decades or centuries. The committee’s recommendations said as much, finding that (1) “We found a case-by-case approach to be intractable,” (2) “Eponymous names are poor descriptors”, (3) “The use of honorifics itself reflects exclusion in scientific participation.”

Better to let the birds speak for themselves, and be identified for their characteristics—not the actions of people, dead or alive.

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