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Ornithologists and birders push to officially rename McCown's Longspur due to Confederacy connection

The bird watching community is fighting about whether a bird named after an amateur ornithologist-turned-Confederate army officer needs to be renamed. 

McCown’s Longspur – named after John P. McCown – is the bird at the center of the debate that focuses on issues of honorific bird names and their ties to colonialism, and racism, according to Audubon

The bird was named for army officer McCown in 1851, after he shot a group of larks he saw on a Texas prairie while stationed there. McCown fought in the Mexican-American War and the Seminole War. 

Ornithologists and birdwatchers are putting pressure on the American Ornithological Society to rename McCown's Longspur (pictured), over its ties to a Confederate army officer

Ornithologists and birdwatchers are putting pressure on the American Ornithological Society to rename McCown’s Longspur (pictured), over its ties to a Confederate army officer

Among the kills were a pair of pale grey longspurs with a spot of chestnut on their wings and white patches on their tails – markers he’d never seen before in the species, which prompted him to send their remains to an ornithologist friend. 

The species was then named for McCown, a not unusual practice at the time when it came to recognizing explorers who ‘discovered’ animals they’d never seen before.  

About 10 years later, in 1861, McCown, a Tennessee native, left the US Army and joined the Confederate Army, where he was eventually prompted to Major General. 

At a time when statues of prominent Confederate figures are being taken down and the Confederate imagery is being removed from state flags and banned from use in some military environments, as well as sporting events, there’s now renewed pressure to rename the bird in light of McCown’s connection to the Confederacy. 

The longspur species was named after John P. McCown (pictured), who 'discovered' the bird after shooting it down on a Texas prairie in 1851, 10 years prior to joining the Confederate army

McCown

The longspur species was named after John P. McCown (pictured), who ‘discovered’ the bird after shooting it down on a Texas prairie in 1851, 10 years prior to joining the Confederate army

The idea of renaming McCown's Longspur was first raised in 2018, in a bid to be more welcoming to birders of color, in the wake of the deadly clash between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017

The idea of renaming McCown’s Longspur was first raised in 2018, in a bid to be more welcoming to birders of color, in the wake of the deadly clash between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017

In response, the American Ornithological Society has now said that it will consider renaming the McCown Longspur for the second time in just two years. 

The renaming of the longspur species first made waves in the ornithography community in 2018, the year after the violent clash between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the first wave of Confederate monument removals.  

In 2018, East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, ornithology graduate student Robert Driver was looking into the backgrounds of the people who birds were named after, when he realized McCown’s connection to the Confederacy, as well as having fought in wars against Native American tribes.   

Driver then decided to petition the AOS to formally change the bird’s name. 

‘The AOS once again has an opportunity to pioneer inclusion and lead the way by changing this English name,’ Driver wrote at the time. ‘All races and ethnicities should be able to conduct future research on any bird without feeling excluded, uncomfortable, or shame when they hear or say the name of the bird.’ 

The AOS’ North American Classification Committee declined Driver’s proposal in July 2019, stating that McCown’s established interest in bird watching, plus the fact that the honorific name was doled out before the Civil War as the primary reasons. 

They also noted that they are not responsible for judging past figures. 

At the same time, the NACC decided that derogatory names could be directly challenged and that ‘active engagement in reprehensible events’ might be sufficient grounds to change a bird’s honorific name going forward. 

In light of the Black Lives Matter protests and push to remove symbols celebrating the Confederacy across the US, birders and ornithologists alike have put more pressure on the AOS to rename McCown’s Longspur through public pressure, Audubon reported. 

More than 200 birders and scientists have signed a petition asking the NACC to rename birds that were given ‘eponymous honors and other potentially derogatory, oppressive, or simply irrelevant holdovers in English common names.’ 

Major nature organization social media accounts – including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy and the American Birding Association – have also engage their Twitter accounts to support the issue, while hashtags including #BirdNamesForBirds have also gained a foothold. 

The increased public scrutiny, combined with current events, has led to the NACC stating on June 30 that although they stand behind their original reasons for rejecting Driver’s 2018 petition, they are now working on a ‘more complete proposal’ to change the bird’s name. 

Although the NACC has also invited other proposals to rename birds that might have now-inappropriate names, it appears as if the organization is not interested in a wide-scale renaming of birds with honorifics. 

To do so, the NACC told Audubon on June 24, would result in ‘massive instability’ and would be ‘poorly received’ the birdwatching and scientific community as it would need a major rewriting of field guides, overhauling of scientific records and other issues. 

‘Finally, most eponyms of North American birds recognize the ornithological contributions of important figures of the past, many of them members of the AOS,’ the committee said in their statement to Audubon. ‘These names are reminders that ornithology has an important history and that we are not independent of that history.’ 

Refusing to rename McCown’s Longspur, Jason Ward, a Black birdwatcher and host of Birds of America, says, to birdwatchers of color that ‘Our history as ornithologists is more important than your sensibilities.’ 

‘That doesn’t exactly swing the door open for more people to rush into this hobby,’ Ward noted to Audubon. 

Birdwatching has long been a notably white-leaning activity, with the AOS taking steps to encourage more birder diversity in recent years. 

McCown is the only member of the Confederate armies who has a bird named after himself. 

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