Science

The Bird World Is Grappling With Its Own Confederate Relic: McCown's Longspur

A grassland species named for an ornithologist who later became a Confederate general, the longspur has sparked a fiery debate over which honorific bird names should be reconsidered. Some say all of them.

In 1851, John P. McCown, an amateur ornithologist and army officer stationed in Texas, shot a group of larks on the prairie. Examining his kills, he noted two examples of a bird he’d never seen before: pale gray longspurs with a small spot of chestnut on the wings and prominent white patches in the tail. After preparing the specimens, he sent it off to an ornithologist friend, who gave it the name McCown’s Longspur.

At the time, this was typical for species discovery and naming. In the 1800s, European explorers were rapidly documenting and naming animals new to them. As amateur and professional collectors like McCown pushed west into Indian lands, they often mailed bird specimens to researchers back east. Sometimes, ornithologists honored colleagues by tagging their names to new species, or named them after patrons or relatives. Today, 142 North American English common bird names are honorifics. 

But McCown’s case stands out for one significant reason: Ten years after shooting the longspur, he joined the Confederate States Army, where he was ultimately promoted to Major General and commanded multiple armies by the end of the war. He is the only member of the Confederate armies whose name is borne by a bird.

Now, as American culture is embroiled in a reckoning with monuments to white supremacy—and when the birding world is itself confronting its own past and present racism—the McCown’s Longspur has become a central point of tension in a much larger debate about honorific bird names, colonialism, and racism. On social media, scientific listservs, and in petitions, many birders are arguing that honoring McCown enshrines the ideas he stood for when he fought for the right to enslave people and went to war against native tribes. In response to this public pressure, the American Ornithological Society (AOS), the leading ornithological society in the Western Hemisphere which hosts committees responsible for official bird names in North and South America, has promised to reconsider McCown's Longspur's name for the second time in two years. 

The McCown’s Longspur name first became a public issue for the AOS's North American Classification Committe (NACC) in 2018. The year before, a violent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia had spurred a spree of Confederate monument removals. The movement inspired Robert Driver, an ornithology graduate student at East Carolina University in Greenville, to begin flipping through an encyclopedia of bird names. “I knew that Abert's Towhee was named after a soldier,” Driver says. “I was curious who these people fought for, and what exactly they were doing.” When he came upon McCown’s Longspur, he was startled to discover that McCown hadn’t simply fought for the Confederacy, but had commanded armies in defense of slavery and had fought in wars against multiple native tribes.

Driver then took it upon himself to try and change the name. Citing the AOS's efforts to welcome and encourage ornithologists from underrepresented backgrounds, Driver formally proposed a name-change in 2018. “The AOS once again has an opportunity to pioneer inclusion and lead the way by changing this English name,” he wrote. “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.” 

Name changes aren’t uncommon in the bird world. The NACC annually updates common names—the names birds are colloquially called, as opposed to their formal scientific names—to reflect new scientific analyses or grammatical changes. But it has historically proven resistant to changing bird names on the grounds of cultural sensitivity. In a proposal filed in 2000 to change the name of an Arctic duck from the anti-Indigenous slur “Oldsquaw” to the European name Long-tailed Duck, the committee agreed to change the name for reasons of consistency but explicitly ruled out doing so for “political correctness.” Another proposal in 2011 to rename a Hawaiian species known as the Maui Parrotbill—which is not, as the proposal pointed out, a member of the parrotbill family—in favor of a newly invented name, Kiwikiu, which used Hawaiian symbols, was met with considerable venom. “It seems contrived, unfamiliar, unpronounceable, and lacks a long history of usage,” opined one member of the board, while another wrote: “For no other region in the world have what are the equivalent of local colloquial names been widely incorporated into standardized English names. Enough is enough.”

In July 2019, the NACC formally rejected Driver’s proposal. The committee members argued that McCown had an established interest in ornithology, the honorific pre-dated his entrance into the Civil War by a decade, and the committee was not in the position to judge past figures. But they also took the opportunity to revise their rules: In a reversal of the 2000 Oldsquaw ruling, derogatory names could now be directly challenged. And while “affiliation with a now-discredited historical movement or group is likely not sufficient” for a name to be changed, the Committee argued, “active engagement in reprehensible events” might be enough grounds to throw out an honorific.

Despite the rejection, Driver’s original proposal sparked a passionate debate on birding blogs and social media that rapidly moved past the McCown’s Longspur and coalesced around a larger, central point: Should any birds be named after people? Some birders, like Nick Lund, didn’t want to end the honorific process altogether. “It’s fun to honor people, and add a sense of history,” he wrote at The Birdist, while stressing that offensive names should be changed. “If there's a bird named after some guy and it turns out that guy was a huge racist jerk, change the name!”

Others, like Zach Schwartz-Weinstein at 10,000 Birds, argued that honorific naming is a fundamentally colonial practice: explorers forging out into what they consider an empty unknown and stamping their identities, or those of their friends or patrons, upon it while ignoring or overwriting the traditions of people who live there. Given the country’s history, not all honorifics have to go—just birds named after white people, Schwartz-Weinstein writes.

Biologist and historian Matthew Halley personally captured the full breadth of the debate within six months. He initially argued for keeping the name McCown’s Longspur; otherwise, he wrote, the NACC would have to recall a long list of other problematic names. Two examples: John LeConte, the namesake for a sparrow, helped manufacture gunpowder for the Confederacy, and John K. Townsend (of Townsend’s Warbler and Townsend's Solitaire) stole bones from Native graves. But then Halley changed his mind, writing that a sweeping gesture like revising all honorific names is precisely what’s called for. “I see now that long-term stability (a stated goal of the NACC) is unlikely to be achieved as long as species are named for people whose moral character will always be evaluated subjectively,” he wrote.

Since Driver's 2018 proposal was denied, the calls for the naming committee to revisit the McCown's Longspur name have only grown. More recently, in the wake of protests in more than 2,000 American cities against racist brutality by American police, the pressure has become decidedly much more acute. In addition to the protests, in the past month, dozens of statues—many of which are part of a Southern propaganda campaign during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement—have been removed. And in possibly two of the most shocking moves, NASCAR has officially banned the Confederate flag from all races, and this week, the Mississippi governor signed legislation to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.

This time, though, instead of going the route of an official proposal, critics of the McCown name and honorifics in general are applying public pressure. A wide swath of scientists and naturalists affiliated with birding groups like Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, and the American Birding Association are tweeting in support, and more than 200 birders and scientists have signed a petition calling upon the NACC to “publicly and directly address the issue of eponymous honors and other potentially derogatory, oppressive, or simply irrelevant holdovers in English common names.” Birders like Philadelphia’s Tony Croasdale have created lists of revised names, redubbing animals like Rivoli’s Hummingbird to Majestic Hummingbird or Harris’s Hawk to Pack-hunting Hawk. Some have suggested that rather than using a standard anatomical formula, a bit of playful bombast is called for. And hashtags like #BirdNamesForBirds are collecting proposals from across Twitter. Together, the protesters say, McCown’s Longspur and other birds with honorific names ought to be recognized for more than the man who shot them. 

In response to this public pressure, on June 30, NACC formally restated their reasoning for rejecting Driver’s petition while announcing they are “preparing a new, more complete proposal to change the name of McCown’s Longspur, one framed against the backdrop of current events.” They also invited new proposals to rename other birds “that frame these issues against current societal norms.” 

As for whether the naming committee will revisit all honorifics, that is unlikely to happen. In a June 24 statement to Audubon, the NACC rejected the idea because doing so would cause “massive instability” and would be “poorly received” by birdwatchers and scientists. Field guides and apps would require rewriting and reprinting; scientific records would need to be cross-checked to keep the old and new names straight. “Finally, most eponyms of North American birds recognize the ornithological contributions of important figures of the past, many of them members of the AOS,” the committee wrote. “These names are reminders that ornithology has an important history and that we are not independent of that history.”

For Jason Ward, a Black birdwatcher and host of Birds of America who has also called for renaming the McCown’s Longspur, the name is more than a racist symbol. The name and the NACC’s refusal to change it, he says, sends a message to Black, Indigenous, and other birders of color that the scientific societies which claim to welcome them won’t change to be more inclusive. “It says, ‘Our history as ornithologists is more important than your sensibilities,’” Ward says. “That doesn’t exactly swing the door open for more people to rush into this hobby.”

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