Home Science A small bird sheds its Confederate past with a new name

A small bird sheds its Confederate past with a new name

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The announcement late last week represented the first time the 137-year-old society has altered a name with a Confederate past. Two decades ago, the organization assessed the problems with the oldsquaw, a vocal species of waterfowl that officially became the long-tailed duck.

“It feels good to have addressed it,” said Robert Driver, a graduate biology student at Eastern Carolina University who first submitted the longspur proposal in 2018. “The general awareness this has produced, I’m very happy that this is on people’s minds now.”

The name was indeed problematic. Not only did it offer little description of the creature itself, a six-inch sparrow-like bird of gray, white, and chestnut hues that traverses grasslands from Colorado to southern Canada, it also immortalized a man who fought for slavery and warred with Native Americans — who surely were aware of the bird long before it was named after him.

New naming guidelines allowed Driver’s proposal to be accepted. In a July statement about avian nomenclature, the society said that uses of “harmful” English names such as McCown’s longspur “unfairly demand tolerance from already marginalized people, creating an unnecessary barrier to the field of ornithology with clear downstream effects felt at multiple levels of our ornithological community.”

The issue, spokeswoman Christine Schmidt added Tuesday, “illuminated for us the need to address controversial names through a contemporary lens.”

McCown, like many amateurs in the mid-19th century, discovered his bird by shooting it while hunting. He sent the specimen to New York ornithologist George Lawrence, sparking a friendship that resulted in the honorific Rhynchophanes mccowniibe. Notably, this occurred in 1851, before the U.S. Military Academy graduate left the U.S. Army. He later joined the Confederacy, leading troops in Tennessee, Kentucky and other states.

Kenn Kaufman, an ornithologist and author in Western Ohio, supported the name change and praised Driver for alerting birders to McCown’s background. “Hardly anyone was aware of it until he pointed it out,” Kaufman said.

“As I continued reading about him, he really rose through the ranks,” he said. “It’s just amazing how many of them there are. These were the prevailing thoughts in the scientific community at that time.”

McCown is hardly the only objectionable name in the bird world. Numerous others could be up for reconsideration, with a variety of sparrows, warblers, and thrashers named for White men with repressive pasts or views now regarded as racist or sexist.

One group, Bird Names for Birds, seeks to eliminate such names entirely. In a petition it submitted to the society in June, it noted the rejection of a 2019 proposal to strip McCown’s name and suggested that the latest push to do so could not fail.

“Many common bird names in North America commemorate men who participated in a colonial, genocidal, and heavily exploitative period of history,” the group declared. “These antiquated common names are harmful, unnecessary, and should be changed in the interest of a more welcoming ornithology.”

Many in the community are applauding the switch.

“Fly free, little Longspur,” one person tweeted. “You were never McCown’s to begin with.”

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