Cleaning up bird names

There’s been an initiative in the USA to change the names of birds named after historical figures, some of whom were racist. The only example changed as yet seems to have been McCown’s Longspur, now called Thick-billed Longspur. The American Ornithological Society made the change.

The Bird Names for Birds site proposes that birds should not be named after people, whether they were white men (usually) or not. Here is a list they created of all the persons named: Historical Bios Index.

Birdwatching (Your source for becoming a better birder) writes:

The practice of naming species after people was common in the 1800s, when white naturalists honored their friends, family members, or colleagues (often other white naturalists) with eponyms — birds or other animals or plants named in their honor.

Today, many of those names are fraught with ethical problems.

McCown’s Longspur, for example, was named for an officer of the Confederacy who defended slavery and also battled multiple Native American tribes. Townsend’s Solitaire and Townsend’s Warbler bear the name of John Kirk Townsend, a naturalist who stole human remains from graves of Native Americans. John James Audubon, revered for his art, nevertheless also owned enslaved people and collected skulls of Mexican soldiers from a Texas battlefield* — a fact that casts a shadow over the oriole and shearwater named for him.

The topic was taken up in February 2021 by Titus Arnu in Süddeutsche Zeitung, in Skandal im Anflug, although the names in German are not so much those of white ornithologists, but more ones using Mohr, Hottentot and so on. The examples of actual changes are few. The Mohrenlerche (literally Moorish lark, English black lark) has been renamed Schwarzsteppenlerche (literally black steppe lark) and the Ziegenmelker (literally goat milker, English nightjar, but also goatsucker) renamed Nachtschwalbe (literally night swallow) – this last change was more because the bird is not thought to suckle goats.

The journalist gets rather carried away, understandable:

Stehen nach den Skandalen in der katholischen Kirche bald auch Papstfink, Purpurkardinal, Türkisbischof und Dompfaff auf der Abschussliste? Sind alle Neuntöter Serienkiller? Darf man noch Türkentaube sagen und erwähnen, dass der aus Asien stammende Vogel einen Migrationshintergrund hat? Auch der Stummelschwanz-Zwergtyrann, der Raubwürger und der Basstölpel wären wohl nicht undankbar für harmlosere Bezeichnungen. Manchen Vögeln würde man imagemäßig Auftrieb geben mit einem frischen Namen. Die Hottentottenente kann ein Lied davon klicken.

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