The American Ornithological Society has revealed that it is renaming the McCown’s longspur, a little prairie bird native to the Southwest and northern Plains that originally was named after Confederate Gen.
John Porter McCown. The bird will now be known as the thick-billed longspur.
McCown was an amateur birder who kept regular records of birds he saw in his travels, so it’s not surprising one of the new species he came across was named after the general.
In addition to the general’s role in the Civil War, he also fought in the Seminole Wars, during which US forces tried to force native tribes out of Florida.
But in an age when people are confronting just how much weight a name can carry, whether it’s a celestial body or a football team, that kind of problematic association could definitely offend a lot of people, as well as provoke criticism.
“All races and ethnicities should be able to conduct future research on any bird without feeling excluded, uncomfortable, or shame when they hear or say the name of the bird,” reads a renewed 2019 petition from the AOS classification committee.
“This longspur is named after a man who fought for years to maintain the right to keep slaves, and also fought against multiple Native tribes.”
Just this year, after an incident involving a Black birder in Central Park and the success of Black-led diversity movements like Black Birders Week, the AOS and other natural sciences societies are focusing on racially charged factors in their groups’ naming rules and in the very structure of their disciplines.
In the new naming guidelines, the AOS’s North American Classification Committee or NACC recognizes that “there may be English names that cause sufficient offense to warrant change on that basis alone,” and says “the active engagement of the eponymic namesake in reprehensible events could serve as grounds for changing even long-established eponyms.”
Organizations like Bird Names for Birds, which supports the removal of eponymous and honorific bird names, states that a single name change is not enough. There are still almost 150 other birds named after people in North America alone, some of them bearing the names of known racists and anti-abolitionists.
“McCown wasn’t just a singular anomaly that has now been ‘solved,'” Alex Holt of Bird Names for Birds said. “But a single expression of far more deep-rooted issues of colonialism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices that have gone unchallenged for too long.”