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Ornithologists Call For Allegedly Racist Bird Names To Be Changed

"A bird’s beauty should not be marred by the baggage of an eponym."
Townsend Warbler
Nobuo Iwata via Getty Images

A Tuesday op-ed in The Washington Post by two ornithologists argued that bird names derived from problematic historical figures should be changed.

Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter, two ornithologists who started the website “Bird Names for Birds,” maintained that the many bird names that include eponymous references to such people “cast long, dark shadows over our beloved birds and represent colonialism, racism and inequality.”

“It is long overdue that we acknowledge the problem of such names, and it is long overdue that we should change them,” they added.

Foley and Rutter first criticized John James Audubon, after whom several birds were named and whose monumental 19th-century book “The Birds of America” is widely considered one of the most important ornithological works ever written. “Surely, most of us might think, this is an entirely fitting honor for someone who did so much for our understanding of the environment,” they wrote, but reminded readers that even “Audubon’s story has a dark side.”

Pinpointing how he once scoured the battlefield after the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto cutting the heads off of Mexicans to send to a phrenologist, they wrote, “For Audubon, this might have been just another way of practicing science — but his actions hardly align with modern values, and his scientific contributions do not excuse him from judgment.”

The two then go on to list other birds who were named for people they don’t like, such as Bachman’s sparrow, who was named for a pro-slavery reverend; McCown’s longspur, who shares a name with a Confederate general; Hammond’s flycatcher, who was named for a doctor that performed anatomical studies on Native Americans killed in battle; Bendire’s thrasher, named for a U.S. major who fought Native Americans; and Townsend’s warbler, a bird whose namesake dug up Native Americans to study their skulls.

Foley and Rutter conclude by likening such bird names to Confederate statues, writing:

The controversy over such names, which is now exciting passions within the bird community, mirrors similar conflicts over monuments to Confederates and colonialists now raging in the United States and elsewhere. Eponymous names serve as verbal statues: They are a memorial both to the colonial system that wove the fabric of systemic racism through every aspect of our lives — including the birds we see every day — and to the individuals who intentionally and directly perpetuated that system.

They urge their readers to reject “the colonial monument that eponyms represent” in favor of “inclusion and diversity in our community[.]”

“We cannot subjectively decide — especially if the adjudicators are White — that some names can be retained because they are associated with less abhorrent pasts than others. We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked,” they wrote, adding, “A bird’s beauty should not be marred by the baggage of an eponym.”

Related: Sierra Club Apologizes For ‘Deeply Harmful Racist Stereotypes’ Of Founder John Muir

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