(August 9, 2020) The American Ornithological Society’s (AOS) North American Classification Committee (NACC) announced Friday, August 7 night via an email to society members, that a formal change was made to a single bird species’s English common name. Rhynchophanes mccownii, the scientific name for this species and previously called McCown’s Longspur, will now be known as Thick-billed Longspur. The initiative Bird Names for Birds (BNFB) supports this name change and is appreciative of this decision. BNFB remains cautiously optimistic about what will happen next, given there are overarching issues that still need to be addressed and 149 other eponymous bird names in North America alone that need to be reviewed, but little from AOS or NACC acknowledging this.
“This is certainly a positive move, but I hope this now leads to further introspection within ornithology and beyond into other scientific fields,” says Alex Holt of Bird Names for Birds. “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. Hopefully, by continuing to confront that legacy, we can further break down the barriers around who feels able to get involved with birds and nature.”
This lone name change comes during a period of waiting for the NACC, and AOS at large, to respond to a letter-turned-petition put forth by BNFB. The call requests an acknowledgement of the issue at large regarding eponymous common English bird names and for a plan to address this issue. The petition provided a deadline for AOS to respond by the end of the North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC) on August 15.
“NACC chose to change the common name of McCown’s Longspur due to ‘heightened awareness of racial issues’, and it’s encouraging to see the results of these conversations that NACC is now having,” says Gabriel Foley of Bird Names for Birds. “I’m looking forward to seeing AOS show leadership on this issue by acknowledging that eponyms are problematic and that they will be changed, and requesting proposals for alternative names.”
In the AOS email announcing this name change it states that “…a transparent proposal process that, since the early 2000’s, has been open to public participation and makes all proposals, votes, and comments publicly available.” By “public participation”, it means that anyone can submit a proposal, not that the public is involved in the review or decision-making process.
“AOS and NACC are continuing to lean into their current proposal-based system, which leaves concerns regarding the subjectivity that arises in deciding what is ‘too racist’. If AOS and NACC wanted to, they could simply request proposals for alternatives to eponymous common names and eliminate this initial step altogether,” says Jordan Rutter.
“I’m happy they’ve taken this step, but it’s just the first step out of many needed ones. I hope that this creates broader interest in understanding the history of ornithology, and in particular how many of those who contributed greatly to our knowledge of birds also contributed greatly to the harm of their fellow humans- especially BIPOC, women, the disabled and mentally ill, and the LGBTQ community,” says Jess McLaughlin of Bird Names for Birds. “Understanding where our discipline has failed in the past is a key part in building a more inclusive future, where anyone of any background can truly and fully participate in ornithology.”