More racism in birding and bird names

June 16, 2021 • 12:15 pm

As you’ll know if you’re a regular here, many “progressive” birders are on a mission: to expunge from ornithology the common names of all birds that are “eponyms” of people who did bad stuff in their day. Bird names slated for the trashcan include Townsend’s warbler, six birds named after Alfred Russel Wallace, McCown’s longspur, and even Audubon’s warbler, since Audubon himself owned slaves. Indeed, some people want every bird named after a person to have its name changed to a non-person name. That, I suppose, is the logical consequence of this movement since nobody’s life could withstand the moral scrutiny of the Pecksniffs.

As I’ve said before, I’m not really on board with this movement, since the names are in common usage and, most important, the names are used to honor someone’s scientific work, even though those workers may have had moral views that don’t comport with ones that are current.  Now if there were a bird called Hitler’s Warbler, or Quisling’s Towhee, I wouldn’t object to expunging those names. And simple honorifics for people who didn’t do squat for science or ornithology, well, I’m not that keen on those. But as for other renaming efforts, well, I think the endeavor is not deserving of debate, but also won’t accomplish much in terms of ridding the world of bigotry.

Click to read the WaPo article, written by Darryl Fears:

Take A. R. Wallace, for example, whose eponymous birds, including Wallace’s Owlet, are circling the drain. Here’s the cited reason why his small footprint in ornithology (and the man’s accomplishment’s are underrated) is being expunged:

The Wallace’s owlet and five other birds honor Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, explorer and anthropologist credited, along with Charles Darwin, for conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. Wallace’s writings frequently used the n-word, including in reference to the “little brown hairy baby” he boasted about caring for after fatally shooting her mother during an 1855 trip to the Malay Archipelago. Some historians believe they were orangutans.

And even that is a correction from the original piece, as the end of the article notes:

CORRECTION. The Wallace’s owlet and five other birds honor Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, explorer and anthropologist credited, along with Charles Darwin, for conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. Wallace’s writings frequently used the n-word, including in reference to the “little brown hairy baby” he boasted about caring for after fatally shooting her mother during an 1855 trip to the Malay Archipelago. Some historians believe they were orangutans.

Clearly the author didn’t do his diligence, since the original article probably asserted that Wallace killed a black person. Even this correction is bogus. SOME historians? No, Wallace definitely shot an orangutan, for he said so in his autobiography (see note at bottom of this post). To imply otherwise—that it might have been a human mother and baby—is to be duplicitous. And he was hardly a racist. Yes, he did use the n-word, as did most white Brits of his era, but he also wrote this in his autobiography (p. 343):

The more I see of uncivilized people, the better I think of human nature on the whole, and the essential differences between civilized and savage man seem to disappear.

As for the rest of the bird names, let the woke birders do their thing. I’m sure they will ultimately win, for they have two things on their side: performative outrage and the ability to call their opponents racists. Those are powerful weapons, and nobody but contrarians like me would even question this movement.  And changing the Latin binomials for these birds, many of which contain the name of the Offender, is simply out of the question.

Yet the article does make one point I agree with: black birders are often objects of suspicion, and people should make an effort to not only include people of color in the birding community (this is an effort well underway), but stop acting as if a person of color watching birds through binoculars doesn’t belong. We all know about the Central Park incident, but I’m sure that related incidents happen more often, and that black birders are often looked at with suspicion. It’s time to stop that; they are simply human beings with binoculars, like the rest of us who like to look at animals.

Yet even this opprobrium is exaggerated in the article’s many over-the-top statements. Here are a few:

But overcoming those barriers will be daunting. As with the wider field of conservation, racism and colonialism are in ornithology’s DNA, indelibly linked to its origin story.

. . . “Conservation has been driven by white patriarchy,” said J. Drew Lanham, a Black ornithologist and professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, “this whole idea of calling something a wilderness after you move people off it or exterminate them and that you get to take ownership.”

. . .Indeed, White explorers, conservationists and scientists who crossed the world conveniently ignored the fact that birds had been discovered, named and observed by native people for centuries before their arrival.

To the Cherokee, eagles are the awâ’hili and crows are kâgû. The English common name for the chickadee is a butchered translation of the Cherokee name, tsïkïlïlï. Similar-sounding names for other birds that English speakers renamed or mispronounced are scattered throughout East Coast tribes.

Europeans named birds as though they were human possessions, but American Indians regard them differently. The red-tail hawk in some languages is uwes’ la’ oski, a word that translates to “lovesick,” because one of its calls sounded like a person who lost a partner. [JAC: To me, that doesn’t mean anything; after all, we have a bird named, in English, the mourning dove, so named because of its sad call.]

“A whole lot of Native people, in thinking about birds, don’t open a book of science. Their book of science is in the knowledge possessed by people in generations before them, the elders,” said Shepard Krech III, a professor emeritus at Brown University and author of “Spirits of the Air.”

There is some truth in the contention that some explorers simply ignored indigenous peoples’ knowledge of animals and plants, which is often extensive and deep, but others, like Ernst Mayr, did not. As for conservation having patriarchy and racism in its bones, that’s simply a reflection that science before the last century—indeed, nearly every endeavor—was a white man’s game, as was conservation. That itself does not mean the field was “founded on patriarchy” and certainly does not mean that it is still larded with patriarchy, racism, and colonialism. It is not.

There are two other quotes I want to mention. The first is the idea that you will naturally feel uncomfortable working in an area founded by people not of your ethnicity, and indeed, should feel uncomfortable. That’s expressed in this quote:

In Honolulu, ornithologist Olivia Wang is equally harsh. She regards the honorifics that birds carry with disdain.

“They are a reminder that this field that I work in was primarily developed and shaped by people not like me, who probably would have viewed me as lesser,” said Wang, an Asian American graduate student at the University of Hawaii. “They are also a reminder of how Western ornithology, and natural exploration in general, was often tied to a colonialist mind-set of conquering and exploiting and claiming ownership of things rather than learning from the humans who were already part of the ecosystem and had been living alongside these birds for lifetimes.”

What strikes me is the idea that “people must look like you”, as if physical appearance correlated with ethnicity (which, by the way, shows that ethnicity isn’t a social construct) is the main thing you should worry about when entering a field. Also striking is Wang’s view that birders from decades ago “probably would have viewed me as lesser”, which might be true, but is surely true no longer.

Finally, there’s the claim that by making birding more diverse and inclusive, it will improve ornithology. To wit:

The new panel is “not just because we want to feel good about ourselves,” said Webster, who is White. “We see it [as] critically important to understanding and conserving birds. It’s critically important that we have a diversity of people out there doing it.”

. . .Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, stressed that North America lost 3 billion birds over the past 50 years and that saving what’s left will need people of every ethnicity and background to be involved. “The biggest threat birds face … [is] being ignored to death,” he said. “Not enough people know and not enough people care.”

This implicitly assumes that people of different races have, on average, different viewpoints about the study of birds and so more inclusion will change the direction of the field. This is a claim I would reject without empirical evidence. But certainly people of all groups and genders should be permitted equal opportunity to become birders and study ornithology. For that will improve birding, as it will allow a wider range of people with different talents to use their skills. If there are barriers to such study, let them be removed.

But I’m not yet convinced that ethnic diversity itself is a good way to improve our scientific understanding of birds—beyond casting a wider net to capture more interested people.  Diversity should be encouraged not because ethnic diversity is a sine qua non for improving ornithology (if it is, let us have the data), but because in the past people of color were discouraged from following scientific paths. Making them more welcome can be thought of as a form of reparations for bigotry in the past, and simply the right thing to do.  What we need is equal opportunity and more birders. 

h/t Andrew Berry for the information about A. R. Wallace


From Wallace’s book My Life (1905), pp. 344-345:
In my next letter, a month later, I gave the following account of an interesting episode:—
“I must now tell you of the addition to my household of an orphan baby, a curious little half-nigger baby, which I have nursed now more than a month. I will tell you presently how I came to get it, but must first relate my inventive skill as a nurse. The little innocent was not weaned, and I had nothing proper to feed it with, so was obliged to give it rice-water. I got a large-mouthed bottle, making two holes in the cork, through one of which I inserted a large quill so that the baby could suck. I fitted up a box for a cradle with a mat for it to lie upon, which I had washed and changed every day. I feed it four times a day, and wash it and brush its hair every day, which it likes very much, only crying when it is hungry or dirty. In about a week I gave it the rice-water a little thicker, and always sweetened it to make it nice. I am afraid you could call it an ugly baby, for it has a dark brown skin and red hair, a very large mouth, but very pretty little hands and feet. It has now cut its two lower front teeth, and the uppers are coming. At first it would not sleep alone at night, but cried very much; so I made it a pillow of an old stocking, which it likes to hug, and now sleeps very soundly. It has powerful lungs, and sometimes screams tremendously, so I hope it will live.
“But I must now tell you how I came to take charge of it. Don’t be alarmed; I was the cause of its mother’s death. It happened as follows:—I was out shooting in the jungle and saw something up a tree which I thought was a large monkey or orang-utan, so I fired at it, and down fell this little baby—in its mother’s arms. What she did up in the tree of course I can’t imagine, but as she ran about the branches quite easily, I presume she was a wild ‘woman of the woods;’ so I have preserved her skin and skeleton, and am trying to bring up her only daughter, and hope some day to introduce her to fashionable society at the Zoological Gardens. When its poor mother fell mortally wounded, the baby was plunged head over ears in a swamp about the consistence of pea- soup, and when I got it out looked very pitiful. It clung to me very hard when I carried it home, and having got its little hands unawares into my beard, it clutched so tight that I had great difficulty in extricating myself. Its mother, poor creature, had very long hair, and while she was running about the trees like a mad woman, the little baby had to hold fast to prevent itself from falling, which accounts for the remarkable strength of its little fingers and toes, which catch hold of anything with the firmness of a vice. About a week ago I bought a little monkey with a long tail, and as the baby was very lonely while we were out in the daytime, I put the little monkey into the cradle to keep it warm. Perhaps you will say that this was not proper. ‘How could you do such a thing?’ But, I assure you, the baby likes it exceedingly, and they are excellent friends. When the monkey wants to run away, as he often does, the baby clutches him by the tail or ears and drags him back; and if the monkey does succeed in escaping, screams violently till he is brought back again. Of course, baby cannot walk yet, but I let it crawl about on the floor to exercise its limbs; but it is the most wonderful baby I ever saw, and has such strength in its arms that it will catch hold of my trousers as I sit at work, and hang under my legs for a quarter of an hour at a time without being the least tired, all the time trying to suck, thinking, no doubt, it has got hold of its poor dear mother. When it finds no milk is to be had, there comes another scream, and I have to put it back in its cradle and give it. ‘Toby’—the little monkey—to hug, which quiets it immediately. From this short account you will see that my baby is no common baby, and I can safely say, what so many have said before with much less truth, ‘There never was such a baby as my baby,’ and I am sure nobody ever had such a dear little duck of a darling of a little brown hairy baby before.”


9 thoughts on “More racism in birding and bird names

  1. “people who did bad stuff in their day”

    I’d say

    people who, in their day, did bad stuff by modern, developing standards.

  2. SOME historians? No, Wallace definitely shot an orangutan,

    Isn’t it obvious that woke historians a century and a half later are better naturalists than Wallace was as he wrote up his field notebook immediately after the event. How could they not be – they’re woke, and they’re today, and therefore incomparable?
    I propose (in the teeth of ICZN rules, which are neither modern, shiny nor woke) that we rename at least one of the species of Pongo for Wallace, for his contributions to understanding the biogeography of the area. That’ll fix those pesky woke kids!

  3. Affirmative action in university admssions started off with straightforward racial quotas, which are of course simple to administer. This course of action was ruled out by the Supreme Court in the Bakke case of 1978. However, in this and several subsequent rulings (e.g., Grutter v. Bolliger, 2003), the Court allowed some consideration of race, among other factors, in academic admissions decisions—in the interest of achieving diversity in the student population. So, diversity was taken to be a value in student populations, for educational purposes.

    It then became a buzzword in academia, and has now ascended to Diversity, with a capital D: a summum bonum far outranking Godliness, which has only to be mentioned to sanctify any hair-brained proposal in bird nomenclature, the music curriculum, math teaching, or astrology.

  4. I assume these people call themselves ‘leftists’. I will never understand how you can identify as a leftist and engage only in PC wars instead of dealing with eliminating real social problems or trying to harness capitalism which in the US is absolutely out of control. I’m European and I find it frightening that more and more people outside the US start to adopt the American mentality, e.g. I have already heard some politicians from my country use the word “racism” to describe any form of discrimination, be it misogyny, homophobia, or xenophobia (the latter of which is particularly commonly called racism). It’s as if words had no meaning but it’s really simple: racism is discrimination based on the colour of one’s skin. In a way, this redefining of words is a form of American cultural colonialism disguised as decency.

    Yes, racism is still a problem but how exactly is removing the names of birds that honour people whose behaviour was questionable going to help fight racism? It’s enough to see that most people don’t even know who those people were in the first place to realise that this is a non-issue. It’s not like we name something to honour someone for their racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., lol; we do so to acknowledge their achievements. Should we change the name of Hawking’s radiation to something more politically correct because Hawking cheated on his loyal wife who stayed with him for so many years? Her story is pretty tragic and I feel sorry for how Hawking treated her, but I guess it’s normal that you can get disappointed when you discover what the public person you admire is like in their private life. That’s why we should distinguish between people and their achievements (e.g. Einstein was a brilliant physicist but he was certainly a bad husband and not the best father to his children).

  5. Every time I read the word “Colonialism” …. I move right along, to anywhere else. Because I don’t like to waste my time.
    Sick of it.
    Sick of the woke and its insane obsessions.

  6. I guess there just isn’t enough BIG gripe in the world anymore. The big boogeymen of slavery, woman suffrage, women’s rights, minority oppression, gay marriage, televised war…a lot of that has been “solved” for the moment. So the new outrage for the left is bird names, school names, statues of bad people born too early…I guess in a way that’s a sign of progress. The gripes are all penny ante bullshit. It seems some people can’t define themselves unless they are fighting against something (it’s just as prevalent on the right). It just so happens, that for the moment, these fights are meaningless. Too bad real problems like climate change are too huge, unpredictable and amorphous for many wokesters to grapple with in a meaningful way. If the woke put all their energy into something like climate change, I wonder if more progress could be made on that front? Well, climate change is difficult, being pissed off at a dead person’s morality from a different age is simple.

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