Last week, another Confederate monument fell. The monument, in this case, was taxonomic: McCown’s longspur—a grassland bird native to the central United States—will henceforth be known as the thick-billed longspur, the North American Classification Committee (NACC) announced on 7 August.
The decision comes nearly 2 years after a graduate student in ornithology first proposed renaming the bird, which was dubbed for John McCown, a Confederate general in the Civil War. NACC initially rejected the proposal, with some members citing McCown’s “legitimate contributions to ornithology” and noting that “it is widely known that judging historical figures by current moral standards is problematic, unfair to some degree, and rarely black-and-white.” But amid the recent social reckoning ignited by the May killing of George Floyd, the panel gave the proposal a fresh look and decided to join other scientific disciplines in stripping the names of racists and eugenicists from species, buildings, and prizes in their fields.
The move also came after a widely publicized bird-watching incident in New York City’s Central Park. The incident—which occurred on Memorial Day, within hours of the killing of George Floyd—involved a white woman falsely claiming to police that Christian Cooper, a Black birder, was threatening her life. In the outrage that followed, a group of Black ornithology graduate students organized #BlackBirdersWeek to raise awareness about a variety of issues, including the persistence of bird species names that codified the legacies of people who held racist views.
The NACC decision to rename the longspur “demonstrates growth and an opportunity for more learning” on the issues of anticolonialism and antiracism, says Tykee James, government affairs coordinator for the National Audubon Society and a co-organizer of #BlackBirdersWeek.
But antiracism advocates say much work remains. Bird Names for Birds, an initiative that has compiled a list of species with what it considers problematic eponyms, counts 149 additional existing names that warrant changing. “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,” says Alex Holt, a co-organizer of the effort.
Yesterday, a study posted on the preprint server bioRxiv found that, although 95% of the bird species that researchers have described since 1950 live in the global south, 68% of their names honor scientists from the global north. “As we increasingly reflect on the social foundations and impacts of our science, these findings show how research and labor in the global South continue to be disproportionately translated into power and authority in the global North, upholding and re-enacting imperial structures of domination,” the authors write.
To help advance the discussion, some organizers of #BlackBirdersWeek announced last week that they are taking the first steps to launching a new nonprofit, BlackAFInSTEM, that will look “to build on the energy and passion of #BlackBirdersWeek.” Signing off, the organization added: “Stayed tuned y’all!”