July 28, 2021

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

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

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 of the American Ornitological Association (Société American Ornithology, AOS), devoted to 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 write 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 ”, explains Jordan Rutter at World.

Corpses in the closet

At the same time, the two ornithologists launched the Bird Names for Birds site 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 cannot describes nothing of the bird or even the story: it just serves to honor someone. The site lists over 150 birds whose names are linked to characters “Problematic”, comme William Alexander Hammond, John Bachman ou 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 carried by his friend, the doctor and anthropologist Samuel George Morton.

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