Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 3, 2020

What's in a Name?

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)
By Dominic Sherony - Flickr: Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31993565 
 
Back in 2000, the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the standardized American English name of the bird I’d learned as the Oldsquaw to Long-tailed Duck. Being a white birder with the education of a white Chicagoan born in the 1950s, I’d had no idea that that the original name was a racial slur—I didn’t even realize it had negative connotations at all, much less was extremely ugly and offensive to a whole group of people. Even well-educated and well-meaning people can be very ignorant about important things. 

The AOU finally changed the name, not because it was so offensive in general, but because it offended a specific group of people whose help ornithologists needed. This duck, a declining species, breeds in Alaska and northern Canada where Native Americans were instrumental in conserving it. To avoid upsetting white birders too much, people involved in the name change emphasized that the name “Long-tailed Duck” had always been the British Ornithologists’ Union’s English name for the species.  

As someone who loves birds and human beings both, I was absolutely in favor of the name change, and mystified why so much effort was made to appease people who didn’t care how offensive the name was to so many people. I was angry that some white birders were whining that maintaining the tradition of a bird’s English name was somehow more important than the feelings of millions of people, and that changing this name was simply for “political correctness,” a snide way of dismissing basic human decency and the Golden Rule as mere political pandering.  

Personally, I love traditions, and I’m always sorrowful giving up something I’ve long treasured. I feel unsettled when I have to learn a whole new name for a familiar, and especially a beloved, bird. I suppose part of it is a fear of becoming irrelevant. Older people like me are usually at least a little resistant to change, and learning anything new is harder as you get older. I also felt bereaved when the American Ornithologists’ Union merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society, changing their joint name to the American Ornithological Society. I’d been a member of the AOU since the 1970s and the Cooper Ornithological Society since the 1980s, and have deep emotional connections to both—I wrote a poem for a fun AOU parody journal and led field trips when the AOU met in Madison, Wisconsin, while I still lived there, and the Cooper Ornithological Society gave me their Frances F. Roberts award for my paper about daytime warbler migration in 1991. But as a loyal member of both original organizations, I realized that their practical needs in a changing world trumped my nostalgia. 

McCown's Longspur 

In 2018, Robert Driver, a graduate student at East Carolina University, filed a proposal to the classification committee of the American Ornithological Society requesting that they change the name of McCown's Longspur. The bird was named in 1851 by amateur ornithologist George Newbold Lawrence for his friend John P. McCown. Captain McCown, stationed in Texas, had been shooting larks and found among all the carcasses a single specimen of an unfamiliar bird, so he sent it to Lawrence, who named it Calcarius mccownii for him.  

The new longspur was noted to have a shorter hind toe and thicker bill than the other longspurs, and so in 1858, it was taken out of the typical longspur genus, Calcarius, and placed in Rhynchophanes, which literally means “thick billed.” It stayed in that genus from the first AOU Checklist in 1886 until a hybrid was found between it and a Chestnut-collared Longspur, suggesting the two species were closely related and prompting ornithologists to put it back with the other longspurs in 1983. A 2003 genetics study found it wasn’t so closely allied with the other longspurs after all, and it was placed back in Rhynchophanes. Either way, its specific epithet remains mccownii.  

McCown had been educated at West Point at taxpayer expense and collected birds in Texas and the Southwest while serving in the United States Army, again supported by the U.S. government. Yet he took up arms against the U.S. Army, killing many American soldiers in the Civil War. 

At a time when Americans have been reconsidering monuments commemorating those who had joined the traitorous Confederacy in defense of slavery, Robert Driver thought the time was ripe to reconsider bird names commemorating those same Confederates. He wasn’t asking to change the scientific name, Rhynchophanes mccownii, but simply to change the vernacular name. His proposal was dismissed by the checklist committee, who cited the need to maintain stability in naming conventions, but they deferred the matter for further discussion.  

That further discussion took place this year. In June, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the ugly case of a woman in Central Park calling 911 to say a Black man was threatening her just because Christian Cooper had politely asked her to leash her dog, white birders finally started listening to Black birders teaching us the many ways racism has made it fraught and quite literally dangerous for them to do what we white birders have always been able to take for granted. Seizing the moment, people supporting the name change brought the issue of McCown’s Longspur back to the committee, and they finally agreed to change the name of the bird to the Thick-billed Longspur.  

I’ve only seen this handsome longspur four times—in 1979 in the Pawnee Grasslands in Colorado, in 2013 on one of Kim Eckert's birding trips to Colorado, and a couple of times in Duluth—but since I first saw its picture in a field guide in 1975, I’ve thought of it as McCown’s Longspur. Being 68 years old and a creature of habit, it’s tricky to suddenly switch to thinking of it as the Thick-billed Longspur, and my daughter, who serves as my web master but also as a brand new mother, hasn't had a chance to correct it on my webpage yet. But for me, the mild disquiet of a name change is more than offset by my sense of fairness and right-and-wrong.  

The same people who whined about changing the name of the Long-tailed Duck are now whining about this change. Some of them have even formed a “Make Birding Great Again” group, as if name changes haven’t been a part of ornithology from the start. I’ve even read ridiculously hyperbolic complaints that this is reminiscent of the movie “The Matrix” or other dystopian nightmares in which history is erased!  

In reality, the discussion about McCown has finally shed light on important elements of history. McCown’s biography in the 1985 edition of the book American Bird Names, by Choate, says McCown “served in the U.S. Army, 1840-1869.” Talk about erasing history! Gruson’s Words for Birds, published in 1972, at least acknowledges that “At the outbreak of the Civil War, he resigned from the Union Army to join the Confederates, in whose ranks he rose to Major-General.” The entry for McCown in Terres’s 1980 The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds leaves out all discussion of McCown's military service after the time he noticed the one outlier amidst his piles of dead larks. And again, the bird’s scientific name remains the same. Only the English name is affected.  

A great many of the people complaining about changing the name are saying the new name, “Thick-billed Longspur,” is ridiculous for featuring such a hard-to-see feature, even though “thick billed” is a literal translation of the name for the genus into which the bird was placed in 1858, remained for over a century, and has been returned to now. Apparently erasing history is easier when you don’t know history to begin with. 

I’ve never had the right to name a bird species. Indeed, I’ve only legally named three entities in my life, my children. Like scientific names, the names I gave them are official, as registered on their birth certificates. I also assigned them common names—Joey, Katie, and Tommy. Katie changed hers to Katherine on her first day of kindergarten. In junior high school, Joey drew some hilarious pictures of a toaster with an angry face, wielding an electric cord and butter knife like weapons. His friends started calling him Toaster and then Toast, and he liked that. I can still call him Joe or Joey, but almost all his friends and co-workers know him as Toast, which he considers his real name. Should I be offended or angry that the name I gave him—my official right as his parent—ended up being set aside? Should I gripe that he is erasing history and being disrespectful of tradition? Of course not. That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and that which I call Joey by the name Toast remains my wonderful son. If the beautiful bird in question had to choose between being named for a subtle field mark or for the man who shot one of its ancestors without even knowing what he was aiming at, I have a sneaking suspicion which it would choose.   

How Toast got his name

3 comments :

  1. Very nice piece Laura. Thick-billed and 'Toast.' Thanks - Ken

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  2. Hi Laura - Very good column. I have absolutely no objections to the idea of changing the name of this species, and I note that there is a reason for choosing ‘thick-billed’ as a replacement. However, I still think it would have been better to have chosen a name that reflected either the unusual plumage of this bird or its threatened habitat. If you want a bird that really deserves the name ‘thick-billed’ there is always the Thick-billed Lark (Rhamphocorys clotbey), which does have a whopper of a beak.

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  3. This is wonderful, articulate and thoughtful Laura.

    Thank you.

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