In the United States, the battle for more inclusive bird names

Dscrapping of statues of Confederate generals, military bases, streets and sports teams renamed… The death of African-American George Floyd in the spring of 2020 under the knee of white policeman Derek Chauvin kicked off a movement to confront the United States with the symbols of their racist, slavery past and colonial.

This shock wave ended up touching one of the last strongholds of white supremacy: ornithology. This branch of zoology, which has for object the study of birds and is still practiced by a large majority of amateurs, is today in full introspection, as illustrated by a recent seminar from the American Ornitological Association (American Society of Ornithology, AOS), devoted with the vernacular names of the birds of North America.

Analysis: Racial equality remains to be achieved in the United States

The AOS, an institution founded in 1883, was shaken up in August 2020 by a column published by Jordan Rutter and Gabriel Foley in the Washington Post, calling for the decolonization of ornithology. The two ornithologists then wrote in particular that “Colonialism taints the vernacular names of several birds [qui] as such must be amended ”.

“In North America, there are only white men and some white women whose name was given to birds [et à d’autres espèces]. Many of them were despicable figures, even by the criteria of the XIXe century. They represent a period of colonial history and exploitation of which many people are still feeling the effects ”, Jordan Rutter told the World.

Corpses in the closet

At the same time, the two ornithologists launched the site Bird Names for Birds which recalls that the name of a bird can describe its appearance, its behavior, its habitat, its song or the name of a person … But an honorary name does not describe anything of the bird or even of the history: it’s just to honor someone. The site lists more than 150 birds whose names are linked to characters “Problematic”, as William Alexander Hammond, John Bachman or John Kirk Townsend.

The latter gave its name to Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi, Townsend’s solitaire) and Townsend’s Warbler (Setophaga townsendi, Townsend’s Warbler). Not content with exploring the American West, this ornithologist looted the skulls of Native American graves in the 1840s, to bring his stone to phrenology and racialism, pseudosciences brought by his friend, the doctor and anthropologist Samuel George Morton.

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