These bird names that ornithologists struggle with

J. American ornithologist and conservationist Drew Lanham doesn’t just appreciate birds. He is deeply in love with these feathered creatures and thinks of those who dedicate themselves to hunting, naming, cataloging, rescuing, and in one way or another connecting with birds. In an article in the magazine National Audubon SocietyIn his book published in 2021, he admits to being fascinated by “the almost mythical power” of John James Audubon (1785-1851), a name associated with American ornithology like Edison was with the electric light bulb .

Driven by an insatiable desire to know, explore forests, hunt, observe, and draw new species, John James Audubon is the author of a canonical work: The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838, brings together paintings of hundreds of life-size fugitive species observed, described, and illustrated with remarkable realism. “I read everything I could get my hands on,” Lanham continues. In each book, John James was a woodsman and a hero, the kind of birder I wanted to be. While the other kids on the playground thought they were cowboys or astronauts, I imagined myself dressed in buckskin, with a telescope and a hunting rifle. I wanted to be like Audubon and watch and collect birds. Like him, I killed birds and painted them. I happened to be Black. »

Two hundred years ago, Audubon was also a slave owner and an open opponent of the abolition of slavery. According to his biographer Gregory Nobles, he enslaved nine people to work in his home in Kentucky, bought and sold several people, and resisted their emancipation. Audubon, a man of his time born in Santo Domingo, inherited this acceptance of African slavery as a natural fact, since his father owned plantations and slaves on the island. He could have been ahead of his time and judged differently. But he was no prodigy.

ALSO READAre the birds idiots? “Audubon bought and sold people like horses. This is sufficient evidence to assign the hero a different role. The organizations that bear the Audubon name must move forward in this new light and decide who and what they want to be,” continued J. Drew Lanham. In March 2023, the National Audubon Society cited two main reasons for retaining the Audubon name: Given the major challenge facing birds and other wildlife from climate change and other pressures, it argued that the group’s name, which has existed for about fifty years Founded after Audubon’s death, “It represented much more than the work of one person.”

“Hitler’s warbler or Stalin’s chiffchaff”

The peace was short-lived. Following the publication of an article by Jordan Rutter and Gabriel Foley in 2020, a new front had been opened Washington Postwhich calls for decolonizing ornithology and thereby creating the location Bird names for birds, which contains a list of species names that are considered offensive. Under pressure, the American Ornithological Society (AOS), the scientific group that maintains the official list of bird names for North America, announced a few days ago that it would do so next year “in an effort to correct the mistakes of the past “. begin renaming approximately 70-80 species of birds in the United States and Canada named after humans from 150 bird names of the same name.

“One might ask whether a bird should be called Hitler’s warbler or Stalin’s chiffchaff. But in this venture across the Atlantic, I perceive more of a grotesque, puritanical madness that reveals a society that is shaking to its very foundations, that is absolutely no longer able to regulate things, that naively believes that the extinction of words “The birth of an empathetic and caring society, even though it denies it,” responds Jean-Philippe Siblet, Vice-President of the Society for Ornithological Studies of France.

Among the species that will receive new identities is the seabird Audubon’s Shearwater, named after John James Audubon. But also the warbler and the Townsend solitaire, two passerines reminiscent of John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851), an ornithologist who excavated skulls in Native American cemeteries and collected them for studies aimed at identifying all human races based on their cranial characteristics to define in order to prove the inferiority of indigenous peoples.

ALSO READCensorship in the USA: Libraries are under attack from all sidesThey also include the Wallace owl and five other birds that honor Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a British naturalist, explorer and anthropologist who, along with Charles Darwin, is credited with conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. “If he proved progressive for his time by defending women’s right to vote, his writings show very clearly that he considered whites to be superior, and if we add his role in the discovery of natural selection, we find in his Work.” “Forerunner of what would later become eugenic theories,” explains Alex Holt, author of a biographical sheet on the website Bird names for birds.

This British explorer was fascinated by cannibalism

Among the undesirables is James Sligo Jameson, another British naturalist and explorer who was fascinated by cannibalism and gave his name to a finch. In his diary he tells how he offered an African tribal leader six handkerchiefs in return for murdering and eating a ten-year-old girl so that he could draw the horror scene. For now, the American Ornithological Society plans to change only the common English-language names of birds to honor individual birds, rather than the two-part Latin scientific names of species found primarily in the United States, United States or Canada.

Bonaparte’s Seagull (Bonaparte’s seagull) Named so by Audubon, not as a tribute to the emperor, but to his nephew, the French ornithologist Charles-Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857), it could also be called something else. Just like the cooking petrel, a bird that breeds on a few small islands in New Zealand, migrates across the vast Pacific Ocean but “has nothing to do with the history, achievements, legacy or death of its namesake.” Many ornithologists encourage the group to replace eponymous names with terms that describe the bird’s appearance, behavior, habitat or song.

“People stole information from others to show off.”

“What constitutes science,” emphasizes Jean-Philippe Siblet, who was also director of the Natural Heritage Service at the National Museum of Natural History, “is the Latin binomial nomenclature, that is, two terms consisting of the genus name followed by…” species qualifier. However, within this international code there are Latin names that refer to people. We find auduboniof Bonaparti And sibleti. Someone named me after an insect and a seashell. The Secret Service didn’t come to my house to find out if I was worthy of this dedication. What happens if I commit a crime tomorrow? »

The Audubon’s shearwater was named by René-Primevère Lesson in honor of the famous French-American ornithologist. Its scientific name (Puffin lherminieri) is a homage to the naturalist Félix Louis L’Herminier (1779-1833). Beyond scientific nomenclature, these native names convey stories, myths, cultures, tales of exploration and wonder. “The Adelie penguin is named after the wife of the man who discovered this area. It’s heritage. It’s absolutely shocking that people would think of changing names just for reasons of decency. They want us to believe that scientists and ornithologists in particular have been spared from the upheavals of society. People have stolen information from others to show off. »

The ivory, white or beige seagull?

This concern about birds and their name change is not new. It turned ornithology on its head long before that Cancel culture The American culture of banishment, which consists in banning from public spaces things that do not correspond to certain values, does not affect France. The reasons for the renaming are less about freeing bird names from the shackles of racism, colonialism and misogyny, and more about responding to a more subjective desire, that of the joy of naming. “People have said that the ivory gull that lives in northern Greenland should be called the ivory gull. It is a white seagull, called Ivory because it was described from a specimen in the museum, slightly faded, beige like ivory. It is stupid and scandalous to change the name of a species for such unscientific reasons. »

For taxonomists, specialists in the classification of living things, and publishers of books and guides, the consequences are dizzying. “Suddenly thousands of books become obsolete. With sometimes up to ten names for the same species, managing computer databases is very complicated. » Across the Atlantic, Jean-Jacques Audubon’s genius was weighed against his despicable behavior. What to do with his unclear legacy? In a stunning text, the philosopher Pierre Vesperini writes: “To remember a man, in the form of a statue, a monument, or a name, is not to remember a saint, an angel, or even a hero. To erect a statue, be it a bronze or a statue, is to record for centuries the memory of a man whose deeds we believe should never be forgotten. »


Juliet Ingram

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