The culture wars are prominent forces in our country. We see books being banned from school libraries. School curricula are designed to avoid or to accentuate controversial events in U. S. history. Confederate statues are being removed.
The culture wars spill over into science and nature study. Here’s a brief history of the current battle that is going on with bird names. When a new species of any organism is described, the taxonomist assigns the new species to a genus and creates a new species name. For example, Homo sapiens.
Many taxonomists honor or commemorate other scientists, colleagues or friends using an eponym for the species name. So, Calidris bairdii is the formal scientific name of Baird’s Sandpiper. The species name memorializes Spencer Fullerton Baird, who was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution for 37 years, serving as Secretary for nine years. The specimen holdings at the Smithsonian went from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over two million when he retired in 1887. The eponym seems to be richly deserved.
Birds were one of the first groups of organisms to have standardized common names. It’s a lot easier to say you saw a Bonaparte’s Gull than it is to say you saw a Chroicocephalus philadelphia.
The American Ornithological Society (AOS) has a Check-list Committee that standardizes the common names of birds, making changes to reflect new findings into taxonomic relationships.
The committee endorses Baird’s Sandpiper as the common name of Calidris bairdii. Sometimes an eponym is used for the common name that is not found in the scientific name. For instance, Catharus ustulatus has the common name of Swainson’s Thrush.
Some birders and ornithologists have pointed out that some eponyms are given to people with unsavory pasts. For instance, Bachman’s Warbler (likely extinct) and Bachman’s Sparrow were named after Reverend John Bachman, a slave owner and white supremacist. Should these eponyms be changed?
Bachman was a friend and colleague of John James Audubon. Audubon owned nine slaves when he lived in Kentucky and had other slaves when he lived in Louisiana. He and his wife Lucy opposed abolition.
Audubon’s eponyms include Audubon’s Shearwater, Audubon’s Oriole, and Audubon’s Warbler (now a subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler). His name is also used in several nature societies including the National Audubon Society. That society recently completed a year-long process to consider removing Audubon’s name from the society name.
The ultimate decision was to retain the society’s name but local, large chapters in Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D. C. are changing their names to exclude Audubon. The Audubon Naturalists Society changed its name to Nature Forward. Maine Audubon is conducting a five-step process to examine this controversy.
In 2020, a petition signed by 182 birders and ornithologists was sent to the Check-list Committee of the AOS to urge changing of all eponyms that are reminders of oppression, slavery, and genocide. Since, then McCown’s Longspur has been changed to long-billed longspur because McCown was a confederate leader in the Civil War.
However, there are eponyms that are even more problematic. Scott’s Oriole is named for General Winfield Scott who oversaw the displacement of over 60,000 Native Americans from their homelands (the Trail of Tears). Thousands died in this forced march.
And where do we draw the line? What eponyms pass muster? Some have argued that removing all eponyms from common names is the way to go.
Kevin Winker, a University of Alaska ornithologist, analyzed the comments to two articles in the Washington Post, espousing the elimination of all eponymous common names of birds.
He analyzed the 340 comments to a 2020 article and found that negative comments outnumbered positive ones in a proportion of 3.36:1. Most readers thought eliminating eponyms was uncalled for. Winker found a ratio of 2.36 negative comments for every positive comment for a similar article in 2021.
A common sentiment from those opposed was that attention to this topic takes attention away from the many more pressing issues today that promote racism and inequality. Where do you stand?