“The racist legacy many birds carry” is the title of an article in The Washington Post, in which Darryl Fears deals with an “important cultural problem” the world did not know was important and should be talking about.
Ornithologists are debating renaming some birds as these are mainly the species that bear names of “slavers, racists, and grave robbers.”
American birders are currently debating whether to change the names of 150 species of birds whose name honors someone associated with slavery and authoritarianism in the past. For this reason, Georgia Audubon, a company that protects birds and their natural habitat, hired Black ornithologist Corina Newsom. According to the company’s director, she represents the first step to remove barriers between different races of ornithologists and bird fans.
There are species of birds in the world, such as Bachman’s Sparrow or Wallace’s Fruit-Dove, that bear names of men who, according to The Washington Post, stole skulls from Indian graves for their pseudo-scientific studies and traded with Black slaves. Overall, six different species of birds are named after the well-known British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. He, like Charles Darwin, came up with a theory of evolution and, according to the article, boasted of raising a Black child after shooting his mother during his trip to Africa, claiming that he mistook her for an animal. The other three species of birds are named after James Sligo Jameson, a British naturalist who was “involved in a heinous crime against a young girl he bought as a joke.”
For Asian-American ornithologist Olivia Wang, these names “are a reminder that this field that I work in was primarily developed and shaped by people not like me, who probably would have viewed me as lesser.”
“They are also a reminder of how Western ornithology, and natural exploration in general, was often tied to a colonialist mindset of conquering and exploiting and claiming ownership of things rather than learning from the humans who were already part of the ecosystem and had been living alongside these birds for lifetimes,” she added.
In the article, author Darryl Fears emphasizes that the National Audubon Society itself has a controversial name. It is called after the famous ornithologist John James Audubon, who was also a slaver.
“I am deeply troubled by the racist actions of John James Audubon and recognize how painful that legacy is for Black, indigenous, and people of color who are part of our staff, volunteers, donors, and members,” said Elizabeth Gray of the National Audubon Society.
Ornithologist Corina Newsom even says she was worried when putting on a work shirt with Audubon’s name for the first time.
“I felt like I was wearing the name of an oppressor, the name of someone who enslaved my ancestors,” she said.
While efforts to rename some bird species and Audubon had been unsuccessful, some people changed their minds after last year’s incident in New York’s Central Park when a White woman called the police on a Black bird watcher. She falsely accused him of threatening her and her dog.
“Within days of the incident in Central Park last year, Newsome helped organize a very public declaration dubbed Black Birders Week,” Fears said.
This movement sought to point out that even among the Black population, there are those who specialize in ornithology and the natural sciences.
Title image: In this Dec. 22, 2010, file photo, a Northern Mocking Bird sits on a branch as birdwatchers scan the coast during the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count on the Gulf Coast in Grand Isle, La. It’s been 120 years since New York ornithologist Frank Chapman launched his Christmas Bird Count as a bold new alternative to what had been a longtime Christmas tradition of hunting birds. And the annual count continues, stronger and more important than ever. (AP Photo/Sean Gardner, File)