The McCown’s Longspur Is No More, but the Debate Over Bird Names Continues

In response to growing calls, the American Ornithological Society recently renamed the bird the Thick-billed Longspur. That's not enough for critics.

As Confederate statues and flags continued to come down around the country this year, North America's most important ornithology organization announced it would remove the bird world's own verbal monument to that history. The McCown’s Longspur—a bird named after John P. McCown, an amateur avian collector who fought to defend slavery as a Confederate general and went to war against native tribes—is now named the Thick-billed Longspur.

That decision, one year after the American Ornithological Society (AOS) rejected an initial proposal to change the name, may end up being the easy part. The group’s North American Classification Committee (NACC) now expects, and says it welcomes, a spate of further name-change proposals as many in the birding community reevaluate scientific and conservation history through an anti-racist lens. 

“We’re really clear that we want to listen to diverse voices, especially those of marginalized groups who haven’t necessarily had a seat at the table until now, and work carefully towards a modernization of our nomenclature for birds,” says Irby Lovette, a member of the AOS’s North American Classification Committee and professor at Cornell University. “Where that’s going to lead, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s going to be a process.”

With the nation as a whole reckoning with the structural racism embedded in U.S. society, the NACC, which consists of 12 scientists, has been under pressure from a vocal group of birders who want to see sweeping changes to bird names, as well as to the process for determining them. 

The Bird Names for Birds campaign, which gained support from more than 2,500 petition signers in July and August as well as an endorsement from the American Bird Conservancy, says that all of the nearly 150 North American eponyms and honorifics should be revised to make birding more inclusive. Some of these bird names enshrine figures who embraced racist and colonialist ideas and actions (including naturalist icon John James Audubon). Furthermore, many birds were “discovered” at a time when Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) were rarely if ever credited for their knowledge, and white forces in the United States were clearing lands of their original inhabitants and enslaving Black people. Very few bird names honor non-white people or women. "The history of ornithology is, in many ways, a microcosm of the history and the harms of Western science," says its website, where it documents many stories behind eponymous figures. 

The campaign argues that revising all eponyms and honorifics at once, ranging from the Townsend’s Warbler to Cooper’s Hawk, Swainson’s Thrush, and Audubon’s Oriole, would make a strong statement to an increasingly diverse birding audience. “It’s something that we can do,” says Jordan Rutter, a birder and organizer of the campaign. “We need to address that we have a problem, and we also need to acknowledge that it has to be all or nothing.”

The white-led NACC committee and larger bird community, the campaign argues, may even create more problems with inclusivity if adjudicating which birds are named after people who are too objectionable or which might be acceptable or too important to ornithological history to revise. "I don't see how you could just rename one, if there were multiple people that birds are now named after who disrespected the BIPOC community,” says Juita Martinez, an AOS member and co-organizer of Black Birders Week, a grassroots effort to promote diversity and take on racism. 

Lovette notes that the the bird-naming process has undergone “watershed” changes in the last year to address social justice concerns, and more commitments came in recent weeks, after the AOS’s largest-ever annual (and virtual) meeting, during which equity and diversity became a major topic. 

In the past, policies heavily valued long-standing convention, or “stability,” in English common bird names. This led the committee to reject a first McCown's Longspur name-change proposal in 2019, as well as other past proposals to revise names on the grounds of cultural sensitivity. While Lovette said stability was still a very important concept because bird names are critical communication tools that are in use worldwide, he said that is now only one consideration. “We completely overturned former precedents and replaced them with a statement that these issues of social justice and inclusivity are absolutely appropriate to be considered in names,” he said.

After its annual meeting, the AOS put out a statement and formal resolution promising to go further to be more inclusive and foster diversity, working with the NACC and the organization’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. On English bird names, it will conduct a stakeholder survey, with an ear for marginalized perspectives, and put together an advisory group that can work with the science-driven NACC on bird name-change proposals that relate to diversity and inclusion. Another coming push: making the process clearer and working more closely with outsiders to craft or improve proposals, says Lovette. For example, in the past, he says, NACC rules dictated it could only vote “yes” or “no” on a proposal that came in; now they will offer authors the chance to address comments and revise. “We would love it if we got more proposals, and we’re going to try to make it easier and more straightforward to do that,” he says. 

The recent statement didn’t suggest how many bird names might ultimately be revised, but Rutter found it to be a step forward. “This is encouraging to see," she says. "It confirms AOS is continuing to discuss this issue and hopefully making progress. We continue to look forward to learning more concrete details from AOS, especially timelines for the plan referenced in the statement and inclusion of diverse stakeholders outside the member society itself.”

An apology—and learning curve

But at the same time, Rutter and others were concerned about the AOS’s transparency and open communications thus far in the process, including on Twitter, where many birders have been sharing support for the campaign and discussing racism in birding and ornithology. As the online discussion intensified, several Bird Names for Birds supporters, including Rutter, tweeted that they had been unfollowed by the AOS Twitter account. 

And even as it took these steps towards progress, the AOS also had to revisit and grapple with its own, more recent past. In 2011, the NACC weighed a proposal to revise the name of the Maui Parrotbill, which is not a member of the parrotbill family. Published comments from the committee as it weighed a new proposed Hawaiian name—Kiwikiu—were offensive and culturally condescending: “It seems contrived, unfamiliar, unpronounceable, and lacks a long history of usage,” said one member, for example. 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 August, AOS apologized for and condemned the inappropriate comments, which were published at the time anonymously, saying they would never have been allowed by a code of conduct it formalized in 2015. “We deeply regret these comments and recognize the harm they have caused to all, and particularly to the peoples of Hawai‘i,” the organization said in a statement. To prevent ongoing harm, it also redacted the offensive comments from the public record, making them only available on request.

But a number of people raised concerns online that 9 of 12 members of the committee during that 2011 discussion still serve on it today, and it’s not clear who among them is responsible or what exactly has changed. “I can only hope that this means they have been educating themselves and are truly apologetic,” tweeted one bird scientist, Olivia Wang, a graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, “but somehow I doubt that they have learned much since, given how they handled the original Thick-billed Longspur/McCown's Longspur proposal in 2019, and how they are handling this now.” Martinez tweeted that she believed that the committee member who made one of the original comments should resign. 

In an email to Audubon, AOS executive director Melinda Pruett-Jones said that no one had been removed from the committee as a result of the 2011 comments, but she offered that learning had occurred: “People and society can and do learn from past actions, giving us opportunities to grow, which is how attitudes and beliefs change over time,” she said in an email. “Members serving on that committee have long since recognized that such comments have no place in our discourse.” 

What’s clear is that the conversation about racism and inclusion in the bird community—and learning on the part of decision-makers—will continue. Over time, many North American bird names may be up for revision; Lovette says the NACC has already received more proposals. In fact, the debate could expand beyond North America: Recently, researchers documented that, since 1950, a large number of eponymous bird species in South America, southeast Asia, and other regions in the global South were described by or named after people in the global North, reflecting how science still upholds imperialist structures. 

And the bigger idea that birds shouldn’t be named after people isn’t going to go away, especially as younger birders and ornithologists think more deeply about such traditions. "I didn't know the history of bird names. I accepted that this is a Cooper’s Hawk and that’s a Harris’s Hawk, but never thought "why is it named this?," says Black Birders Week co-organizer and AOS member Danielle Belleny. “You shouldn’t just put an apostrophe and call it your bird—that's not how this should be working."