News & Politics

Racist Bird Names Are Next on the Chopping Block

(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

You would think that the Bachman’s sparrow and the Wallace’s fruit dove would be the least controversial creatures on earth. But it’s not the birds, it’s the people they were named after that’s generating the controversy. Alfred Russell Wallace actually has 4 other birds named in his honor — and each of them may be called something else before too long.

Wallace was a British naturalist, explorer, and anthropologist who is credited, along with Charles Darwin, of conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. But his writings are apparently filled with references to the “N” word. Despite his numerous accomplishments and contributions to science, he must be canceled for the sin of thinking like most other white people at the time.

“Conservation has been driven by white patriarchy,” said J. Drew Lanham, a black ornithologist. Has it been “driven” by “white patriarchy”? Or is it that whites organized most of humanity to protect the natural world when no one else did? It’s not “patriarchy.” It’s common sense.

Admittedly, whites went about the task of cataloging and studying the natural world like typical racists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. That’s when most of the nomenclature for animal species was applied. Some pretty despicable people have lent their names to the lexicon and perhaps the issue deserves serious study.

What the issue doesn’t need is the hysterical caterwauling of those who claim injury from a bird name.

Washington Post:

“I am deeply troubled by the racist actions of John James Audubon and recognize how painful that legacy is for Black, Indigenous and people of color who are part of our staff, volunteers, donors and members,” [Audubon Society] interim chief executive Elizabeth Gray said in a statement in May. “Although we have begun to address this part of our history, we have a lot more to unpack.”

For [black ornithologist Corina] Newsome, community engagement manager for Georgia Audubon, the pain is real. When she first wore her organization’s work shirt, “I felt like I was wearing the name of an oppressor,” she said, “the name of someone who enslaved my ancestors.”…

Indeed, White explorers, conservationists and scientists who crossed the world conveniently ignored the fact that birds had been discovered, named and observed by native people for centuries before their arrival.

To the Cherokee, eagles are the awâ’hili and crows are kâgû. The English common name for the chickadee is a butchered translation of the Cherokee name, tsïkïlïlï. Similar-sounding names for other birds that English speakers renamed or mispronounced are scattered throughout East Coast tribes.

The explorers didn’t “conveniently ignore” anything. Many times, as in the chickadee name, whites couldn’t pronounce or tried to phonetically spell a place or animal name. A famous example is the city of “Chicago.” In the Algonquin language, the place where the city was built was called “shikaakwa,” meaning “striped skunk” or “onion.”

Yeah, it still stinks.

But since native Americans and native Africans had no written language, how were white people supposed to get it right? Naturalists in the field had to try and put a name to an animal they had never seen using a language with which they were mostly unfamiliar. As the chickadee example shows, they made an effort to use native language in naming species but usually fell short.

“A whole lot of Native people, in thinking about birds, don’t open a book of science. Their book of science is in the knowledge possessed by people in generations before them, the elders,” said Shepard Krech III, a professor emeritus at Brown University.

Bird lovers have agitated to change eponyms linked to racists for several years but have encountered resistance.

It would cause confusion in the profession and among casual birders, opponents said. Books and ledgers would have to be revised, and people would have to learn new names. Only twice have such objections been overcome and the American Ornithological Society approved a switch. The first was for the oldsquaw, a species of waterfowl now known as the long-tailed duck. And last summer, the McCown’s longspur became the thick-billed longspur — the first time a name with a Confederate past was dropped.

Whatever happened to viewing the totality of someone’s life before condemning them to the ash heap of history? Race and racism should not and cannot define an entire person’s existence. That’s seriously flawed logic.

But it’s “convenient,” don’t you think?