Since May 2020, millions of people around the world have shown their support for the Black Lives Matter movement by attending protests, posting on social media, and signing petitions. In the scientific community, perhaps one of the most vocal groups of researchers for this social justice movement has been birders. The birding community was the first group of scientists to create a social media initiative to celebrate diversity in STEM in May 2020: Black Birders Week. This initiative, which highlighted Black birders and naturalists and provided a forum in which these scientists could share their experiences on social media, made national headlines and soon sparked numerous other initiatives to celebrate Black scientists, including Black in Neuro Week, Black Botanists Week, Black in Chem Week, and Black in Astro Week. Since Black Birders Week, however, birders have shifted their focus to a new campaign to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in their community: changing the names of the bird species that they observe and study.
Taxonomy, or the science of naming, defining, and classifying groups of organisms, is used to assemble closely-related organisms into groups, called taxa. These taxa are then given a rank and are aggregated into a hierarchy consisting of superior or subordinate categories, which consist of a relatively large or small number of taxa, respectively. In the current taxonomic system, which was founded by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century, the group “Domain” is the most superior (i.e., the most general), while the group “Species” (or “Subspecies,” in some cases) is the most subordinate (i.e., the most specific). This hierarchical system was originally created to provide consistent nomenclature for organisms across the world and to simplify how scientists report and retrieve information about different species. Historically, taxonomy has often incorporated people after whom someone or something is believed to be named, called eponyms, into the names of organisms. Many species also have honorific common names, which are given to celebrate people that had a significant role in discovering or describing a particular organism. Today, nearly 150 North American bird species have common names that contain eponyms or honorifics (see this Google Sheet for a complete list). Unfortunately, while eponyms and honorifics were originally established as a way of esteeming scientists, many of the people for whom these species were named often had objectively horrific pasts and/or questionable morals.
Bird taxonomy is a prime example of how eponyms and honorifics can memorialize scientists with problematic viewpoints. The majority of bird species were named by European and American naturalists during a period called colonialism, in which (predominately) European countries conquered territories that were originally occupied by indigenous (and non-white) people, founded colonies, and subjugated both the land and its people. It was during this period that the idea of human races was established and that the white “race” was considered superior to all other races, a concept that Europeans believed made them justified in settling these territories, exploiting their resources, and, oftentimes, enslaving indigenous people. Consequently, many of the scientists and naturalists that discovered, described, and classified birds during this period were white men that supported racism.
Motivated by the antiracism movement, members of the birding community launched the Bird Names for Birds campaign in June. The goal of this initiative is to discontinue the use of eponymous bird names, many of which honor the accomplishments of scientists and naturalists that were also colonialists and racists, by submitting petitions and formal proposals to the North American Classification and Nomenclature Committee (NACC) of the American Ornithological Society (AOS). Through this initiative, birders seek to send a strong message to fellow members of their community: colonialism and racism do not uphold the values, morals, and standards of the birding community, and it is unacceptable that the scientists for whom many of these birds were named are still memorialized through eponyms and honorifics.
On August 7th, the Bird Names for Birds initiative had its first victory when the NACC and AOS agreed to change the name of McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii) – a grassland bird named after John P. McCown, a general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War who defended slavery – to the thick-billed Longspur after receiving a petition with over 2,500 signatures. Although supporters of the Bird Names for Birds initiative acknowledge that the issue of eponymous bird names is far from over, since 149 bird names in North America alone still need to be reviewed by the NACC and AOS, this name change is certainly a step forward.
While the Bird Names for Birds campaign is the first of many actions needed to show that diversity, equity, and inclusion are a high priority in the birding community, this initiative provides a glimpse of hope that birders are willing to work towards this goal. Members of the initiative believe that, although Bird Names for Birds will not end racism, “it is one step. It is one problem that the bird community can be self-aware of, acknowledge, and rectify.”
Edited by Joe Vuletich and Jennifer Sieben