Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter are ornithologists and birders who created the website Bird Names for Birds.
Few figures tower over the study of American nature like John James Audubon — and small wonder. His “Birds of North America” was the first work to catalog most of the continent’s native species in vivid color, introducing them to a wide and enthusiastic audience that endures today. He also described an astonishing 25 new bird species, while two other species — Audubon’s shearwater and Audubon’s oriole — bear his name. Surely, most of us might think, this is an entirely fitting honor for someone who did so much for our understanding of the environment.
Yet science never exists in a vacuum, and Audubon’s story has a dark side — one that goes beyond his notable penchant for exaggeration and scientific fakery. After the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, when mostly White Texans defeated a Mexican army not far from present-day Houston, Audubon scoured the battlefield for the remains of Mexican soldiers. He decapitated several bodies and sent the heads to Samuel George Morton, a notorious practitioner of phrenology, a pseudoscience that attempted to use skull dimensions to prove the superiority of White Europeans to other races. For Audubon, this might have been just another way of practicing science — but his actions hardly align with modern values, and his scientific contributions do not excuse him from judgment.
When we name an animal species after the person who first made it known to science, we are effectively honoring that person’s contribution. Unlike a name describing a bird’s color or habitat, there is nothing “natural” about honorific names: They imply a choice, and we can also choose not to honor the person whose name has been affixed to the species. Bachman’s sparrow, Townsend’s warbler, Bendire’s thrasher, Hammond’s flycatcher, McCown’s longspur — these are all examples of North American common bird names. For the bird community — ornithologists, bird-watchers, conservationists and more — these names are collectively referenced every day. For many, the esteem inherent in these names is unconsciously overlooked, and comfort lies in their familiarity.
Yet these honorific names — known as eponyms — also cast long, dark shadows over our beloved birds and represent colonialism, racism and inequality. It is long overdue that we acknowledge the problem of such names, and it is long overdue that we should change them.
The Rev. John Bachman was among those who argued vehemently against the abolition of slavery. “The negro,” he wrote, “is a striking and now permanent variety, like the numerous permanent varieties in domesticated animals,” adding that “his intellect, although underrated, is greatly inferior to that of the Caucasian, and that he is ... incapable of self-government.” John McCown served as a general in the Confederate Army. William Alexander Hammond, once a surgeon general of the United States, asked U.S. soldiers to send him the bodies of indigenous people for comparative anatomy studies. Charles Bendire fought in the Battle of Canyon Creek, among other violent attacks on indigenous peoples. John Kirk Townsend desecrated the graves of Native Americans and sent their skulls to Morton for his infamous cranial studies.
These men were among countless others who contributed to the library of knowledge we now rely on. They were active during the peak of scientific collection efforts in North America, efforts that were made possible by colonialism. But the westward expansion of the United States came at an incalculable cost to the country’s original inhabitants and their descendants today. To justify the harmful effects of their colonial actions, Europeans and Americans invented theories of race and civilization that conveniently labeled themselves as superior to everyone else. These theories led directly to the racism that still plagues our country today, affecting our society in countless insidious ways.
The controversy over such names, which is now exciting passions within the bird community, mirrors similar conflicts over monuments to Confederates and colonialists now raging in the United States and elsewhere. Eponymous names serve as verbal statues: They are a memorial both to the colonial system that wove the fabric of systemic racism through every aspect of our lives — including the birds we see every day — and to the individuals who intentionally and directly perpetuated that system.
By rejecting the colonial monument that eponyms represent, we can show that we value inclusion and diversity in our community, and that we acknowledge the intrinsic worth of wildlife. We cannot subjectively decide — especially if the adjudicators are White — that some names can be retained because they are associated with less abhorrent pasts than others. We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked.
A bird’s beauty should not be marred by the baggage of an eponym. We could decide right now that the words we use matter, and that birds should carry their own history, not ours.