The Free Press covers the bird-name controversy

June 5, 2023 • 11:30 am

Several readers sent me a link to this article because they saw me quoted in it; I’d missed it even though I subscribe to the Free Press. It’s a pretty fair and dispassionate description of the fight in the bird community to rename birds named after bad people like Audubon (who had slaves)—or even rename all birds (and, yes, all animals) that are named after any human.

I’ve written about this several times, and while I recognize that some names are offensive, I tend to be wary of the issue, as is my friend Doug Futuyma quoted below. I think it’s better to contextualize history rather than erase it, for you can re-contextualize but you can’t un-erase.

But one thing I can’t countenance (nor can science countenance) is the argument that the Latin binomials, or “scientific names” of organisms, should be changed. This is really a moot point, for the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has already ruled that scientific names of animals, for the sake of clarity in the literature, cannot be changed. The equivalent botanical organization hasn’t yet issued a diktat.

One thing I do question, though, is whether all this effort in changing names will actually do anything to improve relationships between ethnic groups, fix American society, or even bring minorities flocking into bird groups. To me it seems like performative wokeness rather than a genuine effort to improve society. It avoids doing substantive work by doing easy stuff: just changing names of animals.

You can read the piece, I hope, by clicking on the link below.

A few quotes for your edification.  Note that people on both sides are quoted in the article.

Chuck Almdale, a 76-year-old birder, is against any name changes:

Almdale, in Los Angeles, made it clear he was against the change both nationally and locally at his 800-strong Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, posting about name changes on his chapter’s blog. His local club didn’t even take the debate to a vote, he told me.

“We decided not to judge Audubon by modern standards,” Almdale said.

He says the division isn’t red versus blue. It’s far-left versus center-left. And it’s more generational than racial.

“I’m basically a progressive,” says Almdale, who drives a Prius, voted for Hillary and Biden, and calls himself a Never Trumper. “I’m old, I’m white, I’m a man. So what? I’m angry. Audubon’s known for birds, for helping and enjoying them. If we change, what are we?”

He calls the battle over language a “divider” and “propaganda.”

Like many birders, he’s obsessed with names, particularly McCown’s longspur, a rare ground-feeder that lives in the grasslands of the Great Plains and was named after the man who first discovered it: Confederate soldier John McCown. “It’s a hard bird to find,” Almdale says, adding that McCown was “a frontier ornithologist.” No one knows what his beliefs were, Almdale says. But after petitions and a fierce online campaign, the American Ornithological Society officially renamed McCown’s longspur to the thick-billed longspur in 2020.

Today there are 155 North American bird names on a change list that “represent colonialism,” according to two ornithologists who started the list in 2020. That includes Hammond’s flycatcher, named after William Alexander Hammond, a U.S. surgeon general, and Townsend’s warbler, named after John Kirk Townsend, a Quaker naturalist who hailed from a family of abolitionists. The work of both men, according to Washington Post op-ed written by the change list authors, led to the desecration of Native American graves.

“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,” the ornithologists Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter argued in their piece. “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.”

But Almdale says the whole controversy is overblown. “They want to change the name of that bird or of Audubon simply because they don’t like that person. That’s a stupid reason to change a name,” he says, nudging a dead catfish at the water’s edge.

Christian Cooper is the black birder who, three years ago, was the subject of national headlines when a white woman called the cops when she felt threatened by his presence. He’s in favor of name changes, but sees both sides of the issue. He does, however, feel that retaining the name “Audubon Society”, which the national society and most of its branches are doing, will drive away minorities:

Christian tells me over the phone that the entire Central Park incident was “nonsense,” exaggerated by reporters. But he didn’t blow off the debate over Audubon’s name change for his local NYC chapter, which has around 10,000 members. In March, he and other board members voted that the group should rebrand, but “we haven’t announced what the new name will be because we don’t know yet.” He said a new brand will help preserve the group’s future as more people become aware of their namesake’s past.

“They’ll find out,” Cooper said. “Most people think Audubon is some German highway. But people will find out. When they do, and they hear that national decided not to change the name, they’ll walk.”

. . . “I passionately feel both sides because I’ve been a lifelong birder and lifelong Audubon member. To me, Audubon means the protection of birds and their habitat. That’s Audubon. Then as a black person, you find this out, and oh no, that’s got to go. It was very much a wrestling match for me as far as what side to fall on.”

My friend Doug Futuyma, an emeritus professor of evolution at Stony Brook, whose name I suggested to the author of this piece, is on the fence:

“This is huge and it goes way beyond Audubon,” says Douglas Futuyma, 81, a retired Stony Brook University professor and lifelong birder who recently chased a yellow-throated warbler through Manhattan with Christian Cooper. He isn’t sure what’s right, but worries “Are we going to delete history? Will we close the great paintings in the Met because they objectify the female body? Will Audubon lose effectiveness as the face for conservation?”

Another proponent of name change:

Glenn Nelson disagrees with Almdale that the Audubon Society should live and let live. The 65-year-old Japanese American is a former journalist who became the Seattle chapter’s community director last year, and led the successful push to change its name.

“I woke up one morning, turned to my wife, and said the Audubon name harms marginalized communities, consequences be damned,” Nelson said.

I disagree with Nelson, and so I weighed in:

Nelson admits “we’ve had members and donors stop giving us money,” but he wouldn’t share specifics, saying that his crusade “makes me a villain to a lot of people.”

A handful of local members I spoke to don’t entirely dispute that characterization of Nelson, but feared saying so on the record. Jerry Coyne—an evolutionary biologist and the author of Why Evolution is True, who penned a blog post about Audubon’s name controversy—isn’t so shy. Speaking about Nelson, he said, “He’s pretending to do something to foster racial equity. In reality, he’s making himself feel good and promoting his virtues by saying he’s creating a safe space for all ethnicities, which he’s not doing because he’s turning others off.”

But Nelson, the father of two women, said he doesn’t care. “I’m doing this for me, for my daughters,” by railing against the “white supremacist framework built into the DNA of the outdoors.”

Umm. . . “white supremacist framework built into the DNA of the outdoors”? What does he mean? First of all, nobody prevents any member of any minority group from enjoying the outdoors: hiking, camping, visiting National Parks, and so on. If Nelson’s saying that there are some bigots in outdoors organizations, well, that’s entirely possible. But if he’s saying, which seems likely, that structural racism is pervasive among outdoorspeople (and how could that be?), if he’s arguing that “white supremacy is built into groups promoting the outdoors and conservation,” then he’s dead wrong.

After I reread what Nelson said, I don’t feel so bad about being willing to go on the record. Anyway, I’ve gone on the record about this issue several times before.

28 thoughts on “The Free Press covers the bird-name controversy

  1. well, Cooper only tells half the story about that Central Park thing. He had a post on his FB page, of course captured on the internet before he removed it, that was reported on in a newspaper article wherein he admitted to being part of the cause of the whole debacle and that he made it a regular practice in the park to more or less threaten off-leash dog owners. If I can find the article again I will post a link to it. It was a mainstream paper. But to the topic of this column, this propensity towards presentism is ridiculous. Presentism seems to be the order of the day. In an excellent “from the president” column in the American Historical Association (sadly, much changed for the worse since Dr. Hunt wrote her message), Dr. Lynn Hunt wrote on May 1, 2002, “”Presentism, at its worst, encouraged a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventuers. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards. This is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant or that we should endorse an entirely relativist point of view. It is to say that we must question the stance of temporal superiority that is implicit in the Western (and now probably worldwide) historical discipline. In some ways, now that we have become very sensitive about Western interpretations of the non-Western past, this temporal feeling of superiority applies more to the Western past than it does to the non-Western one.”

    1. The issue of presentism in historical writings has long been debated and consensus will never be reached. But, that is not the issue here and is not relevant to the naming issue. When something is named after a historical personage, whether it be a building, prize, statue, monument, animal, etc., the bestowers of the name feel that the person has done a good thing worthy of being honored. This act is presentism because it reflects attitudes and belief at the time of honoring. At a later time that is characterized by a different social and political climate, those that have authority over the thing that honors a person may feel that the person is no longer worthy of being honored. I can’t see what is wrong with that. It has nothing to do with erasing history, which I consider a bogus argument.

      Related to the issue of renaming and the taking down of statues of people now out of favor, I find it curious that those that oppose the presentism of no longer honoring certain individuals never seem to mention what took place in July 1776 in New York City: the tearing down of a statue of King George III. Shouldn’t we condemn that patriots for “erasing” history? Shouldn’t we demand that the statue be re-created and erected in its original location? Well, I guess that won’t happen because this debate that has roiled the nation over the last few years is whether a person is worthy of being honored. It is nothing more than that. Maybe in a few years the statue of Robert E. Lee will be restored in Richmond. If that should happen, it will reflect a changing climate in which the Confederacy will once again be back in favor. It will gladden the hearts of those that will be relieved that history is being “unerased.” At least, this is what they will say.

      1. The issue the colonists had with that statue were that they were currently at war with and under attack by that ruler.
        It was not “history” to any of the revolutionaries. I was present at a similar event in 2003 in Iraq. Once again, it was people who were currently being terrorized by the person depicted, and who still faced to possibility of his return to power and their subjugation..

        As much of a patriotic American as I am, George III brings no more of an emotional reaction to me than does Hammurabi or Publius Quinctilius Varus.

        One of the many flaws of presentism seems to be that those engaging in it lack humility. The truly seem to believe that they represent the perfect moral pinnacle of tens of thousands of years of human cultural advancement. They cannot conceive of a future when their beliefs and mores will fall out of fashion or even be considered offensive.

        I fervently believe that none of the recent or current statue toppling and name purging come from people actually offended or harmed in any way by the objects of their ire.
        It makes more sense to me that people with destructive or envious natures are being agitated by people who have taken Mao’s “Down with the four olds!” as their personal mission.
        I suggest such advocates read Shen’s “Gang of One” to understand where this mentality leads.

      2. George III was the British king when the US gained its independence. Tearing down his statue was a revolutionary act. By contrast, John James Audubon died in 1851.

    2. Of course, demands to rename the Audubon society are so much BS. Note that Yale University is named after Elihu Yale who had ties to slavery and was both corrupt and brutal. So why hasn;’t Yale been renamed? Because it would make Yale degrees less valuable. So much for this being an issue of morality.

      To use another example, Stalin was a fierce critic of homosexuality. Has GLAD denounced him? Not exactly.

  2. Why has the outdoors been unpopular with African-Americans? During the years of segregation, there was enough demand from African-Americans for there to be a camping area with picnic tables for African-Americans at Lewis Mountain in the Shenandoah National Park. This was so popular that rental cabins and a dining lodge were added. While segregation within the Park ended in 1951, Lewis Mountain remained a popular area for African-Americans, including local church group outings and so on. So why has the outdoors become more associated with whiteness? Why do the grandchildren of the church ladies who had picnics at Lewis Mountain not take their kids for enjoyable outdoor outings? This is puzzling, and it’s hard to see that name changes of birds or of birding groups will help.

      1. We live in mid-sized city and took our kids camping in West Virginia once. After driving miles on a dirt road, we arrived at a campground that was blaring such loud music that we set up our tent a bit down the road, outside the actual campground. The next morning, in the ladies room, another camper explained: “When we want back to nature, we just walk out the back door. We come here to party.

        SMH – gotta love a simple explanation for a completely different point of view.

  3. Pretty good article by Popescu. Interesting debate and particularly interesting in that different chapters view things differently. I suppose that’s to be expected.

    Regardless of what happens to the names of organizations and to the common names of organisms, I truly hope that professional systematists and their societies hold firm to their commitment to keeping the names of Latin binomials intact. The former can be malleable—and the public is used to things changing in accordance with fashion—but the latter must be kept intact else the literature of systematic biology become a Tower of Babel.

  4. I’d like someone on the name-change side to connect the dots for me about how having a bird named after someone no one remembers “harms marginalized communities”. (And, if the world is dancing to their tune, are they really marginalized?) If there were any harm here, the Streisand effect they are causing would be more of an issue.

  5. France renamed place de l Etoile;, avenue de Neuilly and Roissy Aeroport after C de Gaulle. I don t know howmany generations it will take, but for me it is too confusing. I use the old names.

  6. As one of those interviewed for Popescu’s article, I have to conclude that I am difficult to interview. The statements and quotes attributed to me and cited by Jerry are varyingly and vaguely recognizable as paraphrases of something I might have said, but I don’t think I actually said any of them in those exact words, and I disagree with some of what “I” have supposedly said. It could have been much worse, however, so I am not too disappointed.

    I objected to the name-changing of McCown’s Longspur as in the Civil War hundreds of thousands of people on both sides fought far more for their own state than they fought for the Union or Confederacy or slavery 160 years ago — this is when “these United States” became “the United States” — and I knew the movement to change another 150 names in the name of decolonialism was right behind. McCown was a general in the Union army before the war but like R.E. Lee resigned to fight for his state. He never own slaves nor did other residents in his section of Tennessee.

    Woke science is a detriment to science, just as alternative medicine is a detriment to medicine. I don’t expect to see a flood of new birders join National Audubon Society despite all their EDI efforts of the past few years, and I do expect to see a flood of money leave it if they change their name (currently they’ve decided against it, no particular reasons given). Chris Cooper of New York is only the third person in America I’ve heard actually claim to be upset (harmed, unsafe, etc.) by the Audubon name. I’m disappointed to hear his confrontation-in-the-park tape was almost entrapment, although I had been beginning to suspect that. I wrote positively (for him) about it at the time. In my opinion, wokeness is a fraud, perhaps communism-in-new-clothes as many claim, EDI training has become an exercise in propaganda and brainwashing utilizing peer pressure and fear, and the worst ramifications of the whole Woke movement have yet to hit the fan. And that’s the short version.

    1. Minor correction: McCown rose only to the rank of captain in the pre-war United States army. He became a general in the Confederate army.

      Certainly, we should examine the totality of his life in regard to the bird naming question. The fact that he chose to be a traitor while many other southerners in the United States army chose to remain with the Union would weigh heavily in my evaluation. He was not a private totally ignorant of the big issues of the day.

      1. As Chuck said, McCown was another soldier in a civil war started by few in which many nameless individuals died and you don’t have to agree with the cause of the Confederates to also see them as fellow humans. The fact that he took an interest in birds and had one named after him a full decade before the war is a historical curiosity. Erasing his name doesn’t make the world a better place, just a dull and petty one.

  7. If Audubon had, it turns out, only sought to kill and eat the birds he studied, it would make sense to remove his name. Someone like Robert E Lee, who is famous only for the thing he did wrong, should not be celebrated all. People who did something good but something else bad should be given much more leeway – the bad thing being unrelated to the good thing, the bad thing not being bad at the time, etc.

  8. I prefer to keep names when possible, and hope that providing a chance to contextualize the sketchy history behind some names would provide valuable teaching moments. So with the Audubon name is still in use it would be possible to also bring up his darker side and to convey that slavery was bad. But if the name is not brought up, then the opportunity for a civics lesson does not get to happen.

  9. I invite truly virtuous individuals to join my new organization “Justice, Electricity, Inclusion” (JEI). We campaign to eliminate all units of electricity that are named after figures from the dominant, hegemonic, colonialist, Eurocentric culture of the past.

    For example, the family of James Watt obtained its wealth from Watt’s father’s shipping business, which partly dealt in the slave trade; moreover, James himself was a long-time friend of the philosopher Adam Smith, famous proponent of (gasp!) market capitalism. Alessandro Volta was an aristocrat, named a Count by Emperor Napoleon in 1810. The father of André-Marie Ampère was a counter-revolutionary who was guillotined by the Jacobin revolutionary government in 1793. No connections between Georg Simon Ohm and obvious forms of wrongthink have been discovered. However, since he died in 1854, it is certain that Ohm never filed a DEI statement, as is now routinely required for academic candidates in Mathematics, Physics, and Electrical Engineering. On these grounds, we call for abolition of all electrical units–watts, volts, amps, and ohms–named after these malefactors.

    Even if their association with retrograde practices and ideas is a little tenuous, there is no question that they are all old white males. Therefore, the continued use of units named after them could discourage females and members of marginalized communities from electrical pursuits. On the contrary, we demand that all electric currents be shut off until a new set of units, reflecting the values of JEI, are enacted: our motto is “No Justice, No Current”. Our direct action protest takes the form of turning off the lights wherever and whenever we can.

    1. On these grounds, we call for abolition of all electrical units–watts, volts, amps, and ohms–named after these malefactors.

      Siemens, Henry, Œrsted, Gauss andCoulomb also need to feel the touch of your nomenclatural lash. I could almost certainly go further.
      Watt should be doubly-damned due to his inspiration of the “WattUpWithThat” climate-change deniers – or you need to come up with a reason for not blaming people for things that happened after their deaths.

  10. This kindergarten squabble (“no, my sand castle is better than yours”) unfortunately has expanded into a pervasive neo Stalinism in the US, where history is twisted,
    doctrine is mandatory and logic, reason and truth are sacrificed to tribal authoritarianism. I cant believe how some commenters here remain completely unaware of the iron domination of Identity Politics over the public, corporations and civil society. Nor do I understand the absence and recusal of liberals and minorities from the truly grave ecological threats to the planet and its systems. Do these addled confused tunnel-visioned people really think they are promoting social progress when they impose Stalinist doctrines on us? On our schools? On our businesses? The intellectual vacuum in their brains grows larger each day. That the social justice oligarchs are taken seriously is beyond belief. If you cant exile them from civil society at least dont give them the credibility of their argument. Banish them to the margin, as the ignoramuses they are. Just stop responding to them and they’ll go away….

    1. There is indeed a lot of energy and time given to this entirely peripheral issue! Plainly, it is a matter of looking like you are doing something for DEI when in fact nothing concrete is being done for real DEI. Imagine sitting in one of these energetic meetings, well attended by passionate and sympathetic birders (who do mean well I am sure), raising your hand, and suggesting that we spend limited meeting time to instead develop outreach programs to inner city schools. Provide a sign up sheet for volunteers to go into those areas and teach the kids about birds in their area and the joys of birding. You would find out who the poseurs are in a hurry.

    2. “Just stop responding to them and they’ll go away….”

      This, or simply saying No! to this crap, may actually work—at least sometimes. For example, the Cornell University administration simply said No! to students who demanded that all courses be mandated to contain warnings of “traumatic material.” President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff went even further by refusing to let students opt out of being exposed to triggering content in courses. They said:

      “Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education: essential to our students’ intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society.”

      Read more about it here on Jerry’s site, where I first learned about this important case:

      Students who profess the need to be protected from “triggering” content need to reconsider whether they are really ready for college.

      Just Say No! might just be worth testing more often— in the academy, at the scientific society, at the Audubon Society offices, and in the public square.

      Thank you for suggesting that people simply stop responding.

  11. I actually like eponyms, new or old. Biology is a human activity and many species have interesting connections to people. I like that these connections are immortalized in species names, and I think we should continue to immortalize new worthy souls by naming new species after them.

    Atelopus coynei is a good example. The whole story of its naming, which Jerry has told here before, is interesting and enriches biology.

  12. The article by Popescu was good and as balanced as you can hope to see nowadays but I find this part of the quote bizarre: ‘But Nelson, the father of two women, said he doesn’t care. “I’m doing this for me, for my daughters,” by railing against the “white supremacist framework built into the DNA of the outdoors.” ‘
    What is the relevance of being a father, let alone of two women, have to do with Audubon and naming?

  13. In the ever-expanding civilizing and pacifying process of humanity who knows where these demonized individuals would stand in the current era? They are measured by a still frame of the past. Besides, the facts are, if discovered, named, by said individual and to any inquirer, for the record of historical truth their name would still stand, anything else is false and worse a manipulation of a fact. Agenda loaded to suit a narrative.

  14. For those who wonder if a lower representation of blacks in some field means pervasive racism or “structural whiteness” or whatever, I recommend Scott Alexander’s essay “Black People Less Likely” ( ). Here’s the crucial point:

    “For the record, here is a small sample of other communities where black people are strongly underrepresented:

    Runners (3%). Bikers (6%). Furries (2%). Wall Street senior management (2%). Occupy Wall Street protesters (unknown but low, one source says 1.6% but likely an underestimate). BDSM (unknown but low) Tea Party members (1%). American Buddhists (~2%). Bird watchers (4%). Environmentalists (various but universally low). Wikipedia contributors (unknown but low). Atheists (2%). Vegetarian activists (maybe 1-5%). Yoga enthusiasts (unknown but low). College baseball players (5%). Swimmers (2%). Fanfiction readers (2%). Unitarian Universalists (1%).

    Can you see what all of these groups have in common?

    No. No you can’t. If there’s some hidden factor uniting Wall Street senior management and furries, it is way beyond any of our pay grades.

    But what I noticed when I looked up those numbers was that in every case, the people involved have come up with a pat explanation that sounds perfectly plausible right up until you compare it to any other group, at which point it bursts into flames.”

  15. The equivalent botanical organization [to the ICZN] hasn’t yet issued a diktat.

    Is there any reason to believe that they won’t eventually follow the ICZN’s lead.
    To be honest, even if the botanists follow the path of “woke purity”, they’s be guaranteeing that the next two generations of textbooks (and three or more generations of technical papers, monographs, etc) will be laden with species identifiers like

    Wokei rainbownomen(Wokeperson, Wokejournal 2023), formerly Despicable persona (Unperson, 1492), revised by ICBN diktat #1234567890 of 2023

    I’m not joking about the length of the annual reference number for the renaming diktat, since the number of renamings is likely to be high, and there is no reason at all to believe that there won’t be future changes of fashion in naming, with consequent further paroxysms of renaming. And re-renaming.
    I recall a proposal several years ago for a “tree of life” naming system which would be phylogenetically informative, and (critically) robust against future discoveries, based on organisms’ genotypes. Understandably, it was a computing-science proposal, essentially pointing into a tree-based database of genotypes, so names would be long (30-50 characters, probably in hexadecimal) and computer-friendly rather than human friendly. But that might be better than an Eternal September of renaming. At least the computing world has dealt with one Grand Renaming, and has learned to get it’s defence in first – witness the widespread adoption of IP6 on backbones to replace IP4, and the work today on interplanetary delay-tolerant network protocols.

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