The Names of Birds Named After People – Part 1

This post references two recent blog posts that are well worth reading, and they are:

As long as there have been English names for birds (presumably), there have been ongoing debates regarding them. Birders really (really) care what we call birds, and where there is passion there is bound to be disagreement.

Historically these disagreements might be centered around which names are most taxonomically accurate, which best describe the bird, or which most predominate in prevailing usage, but recently a new kind of argument has emerged and it’s about racial politics.

Now if you think the topics of racial politics and bird names seem a bit disconnected, you should know that this combination is not completely new. Perhaps the most familiar example to North American birders is this creature.

long-tailed duck

I learned the name of this beautiful bird as Oldsquaw, a (clearly derogatory) slur referring to an Indigenous woman. In 2000 (yes, that 2000) a group of biologists petitioned the American Ornithologist’s Union to change the name of the bird to Long-tailed Duck. The biologists were working on the bird in Alaska and wanted to involve Indigenous Peoples in their conservation efforts, and they figured that the offensive nature of the name would not exactly set a great tone for that conversation. I’ll just let the AOU take the story from here:

“The Committee was petitioned by a group of biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska to change the English name of Clangula hyemalis from Oldsquaw to Long-tailed Duck, the name used for the species outside of North America. The basis for the petition was that the species is declining in numbers in Alaska, and conservation management plans require the help and cooperation of Native Americans. The biologists were concerned that the name Oldsquaw would offend the Native Americans. Requests to change the name had been made to the Committee in past years by some who consider the word “squaw” to be offensive. The Committee declines to consider political correctness alone in changing long-standing English names of birds but is willing in this instance to adopt an alternative name that is in use in much of the world.”1

Yes you read that right. An inspiring message from your friends at the AOU (the year-2000 AOU anyway).

This political debate came back to my attention a few years ago in the form of a movement to change the name of McCown’s Longspur. The bird is named after John Porter McCown who was the first white person to record the species (we’ll come back to this obvious issue later), but also happened to be a confederate general and a participant in campaigns against Indigenous Peoples.

The offending longspur. It’s not his fault.

Now it seems to me that when this sort of information comes to light, the obvious response should be something along the lines of “that’s terrible, let’s change the name immediately”. I was surprised, then, to see the change vehemently opposed by some when the topic was shared in my regional birding Facebook group. People who had undoubtedly never seen a McCown’s Longspur jumped to defend the name, dismissing the suggestion as some snowflake-liberal-PC garbage. It blew my mind that people from a place the bird doesn’t even live, in a country that McCown isn’t even from, cared so fervently about the name of a small, nondescript bird they’d probably never even see.

What you need to understand about birders – especially older birders (sorry older birders) – is that many are extremely resistant to change. Even seemingly informed, caring people will say things like “well that’s what I’ve always called it” or “what does it even matter anyway?”.

This brings us neatly forward to today. Last month the mistreatment and endangerment of a Black birder in New York made international headlines and spawned the incredible #BlackBirdersWeek. It feels like we may be on the verge of some big shifts, and it has never been a better time to carefully examine racial politics in birding (and in ourselves). While race informs many aspects of the hobby, it is especially entrenched in the way we have historically named birds.

As a self-professed aficionado of bird names I am embarrassed to admit that I (and surely many other white birders) have not given this topic nearly enough consideration in the past. Sure I knew about Oldsquaw and McCown’s Longspur, but I never took the time to understand how deep the problem truly ran. Fortunately I love learning anything about bird names, so in we go.

The issue mostly arises from a certain type of bird name – the honorific. Honorific names honour people, and adorn lots of familiar species like Cooper’s Hawk, Wilson’s Warbler and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Not all of these people are as immediately objectionable as McCown, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to take a closer look.

Most of these birds are named after (or in some cases by) the people who discovered them, and by “discovered them” of course I mean “came here relatively recently from a European country and shot one”. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to imagine that they are almost all white, almost all men, and almost all colonists.

The concerns that arise from this should come to you relatively quickly. Some of these folks (like McCown) may not have been the sort of person you’d want to honour with a bird name. Additionally, most did not truly discover the birds in question, which would already have been known to (and probably named by) Indigenous Peoples. In fact it seems hard to justify naming a North American bird after a person of European descent, period.

Perhaps a less immediately-apparent issue, and the topic of much discussion arising from Black Birders Week, is that of representation. As a white, male birder I’m spoiled for choice if I want to see people like myself at the forefront of the hobby. But if I were Black, or female, or in fact any other combination of race and gender, the same would not be true. Honorific names reinforce the white-maleness of birding, and do nothing to further inclusiveness and anti-racism.

This is where the two posts mentioned above come into play. Rename All Birds Named After White People articulates the problem beautifully. Incidentally this post was written a year ago, seemingly motivated by the McCown’s Longspur controversy and long before Black Birders Week. The more recent Renaming the Birds of North America expands on the issue by proposing a new set of rules for naming birds, and a new set of names for those which are problematic.

It was the latter which recently grabbed my interest, as I am clearly a sucker for all things to do with bird names. I’m glad it did. It pushed me into this subject matter and caused me to do some important learning. I had actually intended to write something light-hearted about the proposed names themselves, but when I sat down to hash out an introduction it became something a bit longer (and a bit less light-hearted). It seems a complete disservice to deal with the names themselves before addressing the ideas and history behind the list.

I don’t imagine the push to change honorific bird names will go anywhere fast (McCown’s Longspur is still called McCown’s Longspur, after all), but it’s a conversation well worth having. Not only is it an opportunity to fix some glaring problems, but also to position the study and appreciation of birds for an inclusive future. As Wildlife Observer Network suggests, it’s also just a chance to do a better job of naming these birds in the first place.

Part 2 (and maybe part 3) to follow.


References & Photos:

1 https://academic.oup.com/auk/article/117/3/847/5561758

McCown’s Longspur photo: By Bettina Arrigoni – Mccown’s Longspur (male) | Pawnee National Grasslands | CO|2018-06-07|12-29-21, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82952265

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