Five days ago I wrote about a campaign by two birders, operating under the name Bird Names for Birds, that had singled out a number of birds whose common names honored people who performed actions seen as odious or unsavory in modern lights. Those included John James Audubon, whose oriole may now be renamed because he did this:
Audubon scoured the battlefield for the remains of Mexican soldiers. He decapitated several bodies and sent the heads to Samuel George Morton, a notorious practitioner of phrenology, a pseudoscience that attempted to use skull dimensions to prove the superiority of White Europeans to other races. 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.
Judging from the numerous comments on my post, readers were unanimously opposed to this renaming. (It appears that only the common names will be expunged, as it’s much harder to do that with the Latin binomial since it’s against formal taxonomic rules.) Nevertheless, the woke birders have won, as recounted in this article from Science (click on screenshot) and the linked article from Birdwatching Daily (BWD)
As you see, the canceled bird, formerly McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii) was named after a Confederate general, and so is to be renamed the “thick-billed longspur.” The decision was made in a second vote by the American Ornithological Society (AOS). From BWD:
In 2018, Robert Driver, a graduate student at East Carolina University, wrote a formal proposal to the NACC arguing that the longspur should no longer be named after McCown.
“McCown has the distinction of being the only individual who had a bird named in his honor and also served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War,” Driver wrote. “He led campaigns against Native tribes along the Canadian border before being moved to Texas to serve in the Mexican War. He later fought the Seminoles in Florida and served several other positions before the onset of the Civil War. It was during this time that he collected the longspur, and that [George N.] Lawrence named the longspur in his honor.”
Originally the AOS voted 7-1 against the name change, with one abstention. But that was in 2018, and things have changed, namely the murder of George Floyd and the new tide of renaming coming in its wake. So Driver wrote a new proposal that was voted in. And this despite the facts that McCown had not only made contributions to ornithology, but also had second thoughts about the Confederacy, which he eventually repudiated.
From BWD (my emphasis):
The new proposal to change the name, dated July 24, 2020, was co-authored by Driver and NACC chair Terry Chesser, an ornithologist at the Smithsonian, and it was written “in consultation with the AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee.”
The proposal covers McCown’s contributions to ornithology in the mid-1800s, including his collecting of specimens of the longspur, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Olive Sparrow, all of which were new to science. The document also gives a detailed account of McCown’s military career but doesn’t mention the campaigns against Native tribes previously noted by Driver.
The proposal then consider the longspur’s name “against the background of today” with the following reflection:
“Confederate symbols across the U.S. are currently being removed because of associations with white supremacy or a racist past that has rightfully been rejected. The continued use of Confederate symbols and honorifics ignores the propagation of racism and white supremacy that followed the Civil War and persists to the present day. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color continue to experience profound prejudice, discrimination, and violence.
“The names McCown’s Longspur and Rhynchophanes mccownii were not initially associated with the Confederacy; the bird was scientifically described ten years prior to the Civil War. These names are therefore not directly equivalent to the many overtly racist symbols created to recognize individuals for their roles in the Confederacy, often intended to perpetuate the racism associated with slavery and later forms of oppression. The social question here is more nuanced, involving the symbolism linked to this name due to post-naming events. Notwithstanding McCown’s accomplishments as an ornithologist and his eventual misgivings about the Confederacy, he is perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism by many in today’s ornithological and birding communities. This broader association of McCown with the Confederacy and what it represents has damaging ramifications for promoting diversity and inclusion within ornithology.
“Ornithology is not exempt from racism. Racial minorities are underrepresented as birders, naturalists, and ornithologists, as was recently highlighted by the Twitter movements #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackAFInStem. This underrepresentation is complex and multifaceted, but it is exacerbated by the presence of microaggressions, such as an English name honoring a high-ranking Confederate officer, regardless of when or how that name was originally created. There is obviously much work to be done, but removing an especially problematic eponym represents a step towards dismantling barriers for a more inclusive ornithological community.”
However, the honorific is not for McCown’s participation in the Civil War on the Southern side, but for his contribution to birding. On my principle that if a name or statue honors an individual’s positive achievements, it needn’t be changed, I don’t see a good reason for such change. It is not a statue of McCown in a general’s uniform, nor was it meant to remind Southerners of white hegemony before the war.
Note as well that the underrepresentation of racial minorities as birders is imputed to racism and microaggressions, when in fact we have no idea whether this is the case (note, though, the case of the black birder in Central Park who had the cops called on him by a racist white woman). Note too that McCown first fought with the Union Army but then went over to the Confederacy. I have no idea why, but Wikipedia says he was court-martialed and later repudiated the Confederacy:
McCown and other senior generals petitioned Jefferson Davis to relieve General Braxton Bragg in favor of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Davis refused to relieve either Bragg or the rebellious generals. McCown ran afoul of Braxton Bragg, who blamed McCown for the loss of New Madrid and labeled him “his worst division commander”. In March 1863 Bragg had McCown court-martialed, ostensibly for disobeying orders at Murfreesboro, but more likely for criticism of Bragg and Confederate officials, including Davis. McCown was relieved of his command as the commanding general of the Army and was tried and found guilty of disobedience of orders on March 16, and sentenced to suspension from duty for a period of six months. McCown declared the Confederacy was nothing more than “a damned stinking cotton oligarchy… gotten up for the benefit of Isham G. Harris and Jefferson Davis and their damned corrupt cliques.”
No matter; he served with the Confederate Army and so his name must go. And I truly doubt the contention that McCown’s name is “perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism by many in today’s ornithological and birding communities.” Seriously? Do birders who use that name really think that? I doubt that most of them even know who McCown is.
At any rate, this honorific, assigned before the Civil War, is meant to honor McCown’s contributions as a birder. At least the species name in the Latin binomial, mccownii, won’t be changed—yet. But perhaps that’s coming. After all, the Woke Birders have a Little List (well, it’s not really that little):
But antiracism advocates say much work remains. Bird Names for Birds, an initiative that has compiled a list of species with what it considers problematic eponyms, counts 149 additional existing names that warrant changing. “McCown wasn’t just a singular anomaly that has now been ‘solved,’ but a single expression of far more deep-rooted issues of colonialism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices that have gone unchallenged for too long,” says Alex Holt, a co-organizer of the effort.
Yesterday, a study posted on the preprint server bioRxiv found that, although 95% of the bird species that researchers have described since 1950 live in the global south, 68% of their names honor scientists from the global north. “As we increasingly reflect on the social foundations and impacts of our science, these findings show how research and labor in the global South continue to be disproportionately translated into power and authority in the global North, upholding and re-enacting imperial structures of domination,” the authors write.
So even if you didn’t defend the South in the Civil War, your bird might be renamed because the honoree was simply from the northern part of the globe.
This seems really crazy to me—a kneejerk reaction that not only does no good, but impedes communication between birders. And in the case of McCown, who made tangible contributions to ornithology, and even repudiated the Confederacy, it’s even more misguided.
Now perhaps if the bird was named Hitler’s Longspur you’d have a case for renaming, but I retain my criterion for deep-sixing a statue, a building name, or, especially, a bird name: if the honorific is meant to honor positive contributions of an individual (in this case to ornithology or biology), it should stay. If it was meant to call attention to someone famous for their bad deeds, well, it’s worth discussing.
On the bird front, at least, the Woke are winning. It’s all because people are afraid of being called racists. To stand up against renaming McCown’s Longspur will brand you as exactly that.
Is this madness ever going to abate?