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The Plight of Audubon

Updated: Aug 31, 2020


John James Audubon. 1854. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

I’ll start where I stopped: In a time when it feels as though the world may be ending, there is hope. Just open your eyes and look at a bird. Remember this as you read on.

The North American Ornithological Congress (NAOC), a quadrennial meeting of North American ornithological groups, was set to meet this summer in sunny Puerto Rico. Fully online in the age of COVID-19, the NAOC’s remote platform reached far more people than the in-person conference would have. At first, it seemed living rooms would be a poor substitute for a tropical island, but it instead drew a crowd. Ahead of the joint meeting, the American Ornithological Society (AOS), one of the leading ornithological organizations in the world, has been actively involved in increasing their ability to be an ally for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. Statements released earlier this year detail the AOS’s commitment to furthering antiracism and addressing systemic racism that exists in the ornithological world (1; 2).

It’s unusual for me to delve into writing a piece like this. But as an avian ecologist, birder, and naturalist, I feel the livelihood of this field is at stake. My inspiration for writing was sparked by debates of name changes and statue deconstruction the world over; particularly here in America, where we idolize figures who have tainted our history. These are conversations I have supported since they began to get increasingly hotter with the summer and now, they are hitting even closer to home as some ornithological organizations enter the stage. With COVID-19 in the air, racism at our front doors, and an apathetic government, I have never stood up for my beliefs before more than now. So many of us are lost and need to hear reason. If you’ve made it this far without exiting your browser, I thank you. You are in store for an interesting and, I truly hope, enlightening read.

I’ll start at a level of the bird community that is lower than the high scientific organizations: state birding listservs. All states have one. For the most part, they are a platform for sharing bird sightings. That’s great. However, they are also the perfect platforms for discussing topics in conservation, legislation and humanitarian issues affecting the feathered critters we love and those who love them. At least on the southern listservs I’m a member of, these issues rarely fall on open ears and usually become politicized, causing party lines to be drawn through rambling posts about “beliefs”. Just post a simple paragraph about race, the EPA, or feral cats for that matter and you will see what I’m talking about. Too often, these threads are halted by “list moderators” seeking to keep the peace. In Arkansas, we have a separate listserv designated for discussing issues that affect our birds, but it is largely silent.

Several months ago, one such thread caused escalations on the Arkansas Birding Listserv. A friend and colleague posted “Birding While Black”, a sensational article by celebrated Black ecologist Dr. J. Drew Lanham, of South Carolina (3). The article highlights a devastating and recurring theme in our largely white community: a lack of diversity. It’s also a chapter in Lanham’s book, The Home Place (a great read that I encourage anyone remotely interested in the outdoors to pick up). Though this thread wasn’t halted by moderators, it came to an end after some deemed the conversation “too political”. Back to birds, they say.

Just recently, a post many would consider similarly divisive appeared on the listserv of a neighboring state. This time, Audubon, John James himself, was under fire along with his contemporaries. All this because the AOS opened discussions for English name changes in many of our birds named in honor of early ornithologists. Since its inception in the late 19th-century, the AOS has been the premier source on naming and taxonomy of North American birds, which is why they are at the forefront of these conversations. On the chopping block at that time was McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). Nondescript, sparrow-like, and a particular nemesis bird of mine; this species inhabits the western Great Plains year-round.

MCCOWNS LONGSPUR

During time spent in the “‘big sky’ country” in 1851, John P. McCown shot the first specimen of what would soon become McCown’s Longspur (4). Though there are records of other undescribed birds collected by McCown, it’s the only one to bear his name. McCown was only an amateur ornithologist—And it didn’t take much to be an ornithologist during the field’s golden days (19th century). If you had a gun, some shot, and means to pack your specimen on a railway car to the National Museum, you were all set.— No, during his day McCown would have been known for his “celebrated” military career. Today his history is checkered at best. A native of Tennessee, McCown served in the west warring against Native Americans; he served in the Mexican American War and in campaigns against the Seminole Tribe of Florida. His career ended with pardon from the United States Government after he spent most of the Civil War as a Brigadier General fighting for the Confederacy and against his own country (5).


John P. McCown. 1860. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Another friend and colleague posted the AOS’s recent renaming statement as a way to inform birders of better, more inclusive days to come. By some, the message was not received as intended. Some of the replies float through my head hauntingly:

Nobody is aware of the backgrounds of these early ornithologists.

If nobody knows what he did or who he is, why should we change the bird’s name?

I’ll call them what I want to.

McCown served in the U.S. Army with distinction.

He was only honoring his heritage when he sided with a state that seceded during the Civil War.

We shouldn’t change a name just based on the current political climate.

Honoring someone’s heritage is not a good reason to cancel their discovery.

I don’t see how someone wouldn’t pursue birding just because of a name.

If you’ve responded like this, then know I am not judging you. As someone who has lived under a southern version of “white privilege”, I have been there with you. These statements are merely examples, the last three of which I want to focus most of my time on. First, for transparency’s sake, the AOS and many other ornithological organizations have claimed diversity and inclusion for all, but, as is usually the case of long-lived groups, have fallen short many times. In nature of the topic at hand, the AOS fell short in 2019 when its North American Classification Committee (NACC) rejected a name change request for McCown’s Longspur* (6). This was just one of several controversial rejections over the last decade. That said, the AOS is a valuable and respected scientific organization and the NACC doesn’t speak for the whole. Over the past few years, I do see where they have been moving forward in a more positive manner.

To continue, the proposed changes from some of the world’s leading avian conservation organizations, like AOS, have nothing to do with what is currently politically correct, and everything to do with what should have been addressed all along. If entire populations feel disrespected by a name…a name…especially the name of a bird of all things, why not change it and remember the former name in a different light? In 2020, one of the things I fail to wrap my head around is how so many believe humanitarian issues are political issues. Racism and lack of inclusion are humanitarian issues. As someone who thrives on understanding history, particularly natural history, I have always held a space on my bookshelf for big names in early ornithology like Audubon and his more important colleagues; of which McCown was not one. Getting lost in the adventurous texts of Audubon is, in some ways, a treat; if not comical. The man was a tad delusional. It’s this old style of writing that inspires my own natural history writing, with a modern more inclusive twist, of course.

White men they may have been, but there is no doubt Audubon and his contemporaries were naturalists that helped bring our knowledge of the avian world to where it is today. That said, as someone who falls under the umbrella of “white privilege”, I have unknowingly turned a blind eye or been completely oblivious to some of their less inclusive dealings, normal for the time period, but nothing I would ever want to be associated with today. Dealings that my BIPOC colleagues have long known and understood. Take the previous example of McCown’s “celebrated” military career, largely either at war with Native Americans or in rebellion against his own country, desperately clutching at a dying lifestyle of enslaving other humans.

Like many of us, 2020 is causing me to reevaluate, which is healthy and good. A society that never reevaluates is one that is doomed to fail. I would never want to hurt or exclude the friends and colleagues I have who are not white and that is why I’m reevaluating. We are all called to do so. I truly believe those who aren’t involved in the reevaluating will eventually find themselves outcasts, as society around them progresses into something much more inclusive for all. As it should be. The fact that the birding, avian ecology, and scientific communities in general have become predominantly white is a major flaw. All humans deserve a chance to feel included and be a part of a positive journey through nature, science, and the world. We should all be in this together, but we are not.

Back to issues with naming. We should not forget the names of those who came before us to get our society where it is today. Far from it. We should remember all names, good and bad, so we are sure to fully understand what works and what doesn’t. But just because we should remember a name doesn’t mean it deserves to be honored. The people behind the names are just one part of the problem. During the golden period of natural discovery—that was America from its inception to the late 19th century—scientific discovery was a trophy; both literally through collection and figuratively through naming. Science is for all. Discovery should not be a trophy. We shouldn’t forget naturalists like Audubon or McCown who contributed to discovery during early American history; though at vastly different levels. However, as a society we must reevaluate how they should be honored, if at all through the use of honorific bird names (insert statues where relevant to broader society).

I urge fellow members of the birding community to remember this is not the first time such changes have occurred. Recall, Long-tailed Duck was called “oldsquaw” until the early 2000s, which is highly offensive. Not to mention other unspeakable common names for birds. Though a local colloquial and never an official English name, Eastern Meadowlark once had a name stemming from when they would be killed on quail hunts and served to slaves in lieu of the quail themselves. Though plump, I can imagine leggy meadowlarks don’t taste anything like a juicy quail, which was the point. In an effort to find a citation backing what I already knew, I found an article published in the 1950s that is hurtful and harmful, treating names like I just mentioned as a laughable part of our past. I hate to shed light on it at all, but in this case it is light shed on a past we should want to run as far away from as possible. Read with caution (7).

Following close behind the McCown debate is John James Audubon, often touted as the father of American ornithology. Audubon is a particularly troubling presence, as hundreds of ornithological societies around the U.S. are named after him, with the National Audubon Society at the lead. These groups were largely founded by women battling the millinery (hat-making) trade in the late 19th-century, in an attempt to ban the use of birds and bird plumes in high-society’s many hats (8). The movement soon bore life to further advancements in avian conservation. However, as with most of the ornithological world, it continues to be predominantly white. More on that can be found in a recent article by David Yarnold, National Audubon’s President and CEO (9).


Early 20th-century fashion. National Audubon Society.

Why is Audubon troubling? Well, let’s start from the beginning because he has a patchy existence, as did most Americans and frontierspeople who cut their teeth in the post-Revolution years. Audubon had dark beginnings; born in Saint Domingue, present day Haiti, to one of several mistresses of his father, often purported to be a woman descended from slaves. During a period of slave revolts on the island, Audubon was sent home to Europe, eventually finding his way to America. In short, he embarked on a quest to document North American birdlife through a series of expeditions and paintings (10; 11). The paintings became a book subscription, The Birds of America, filled with hand-colored lithographs in stunning detail, of which I am the proud owner of a Blue-gray Fly-catcher (gnatcatcher) and Chuck-wills-widow (both c. 1840s; 12).


Chuck-will's-Widow. John James Audubon, Havell Edition

His detailed, often fictitious writings appeared as a compliment to The Birds and contained jaw-dropping diversions to racism amongst more inspiring pieces in keeping with the main subject matter. There is no doubt Audubon’s work brought birds into the homes of many, helping spark what would become the avian conservation and birding world today. But among the concerns with Audubon are his stances on slavery (an owner himself), the descriptions of Native Americans he encountered, a troubling story about being a white savior and returning a family of fugitive slaves to their owners, and friendships with shady characters, like Lutheran clergyman John Bachman (10; 11). None of this was unusual for the time, but again, something we should revisit today, with transparency and critical conversation.

John Bachman was a longtime confidant of Audubon’s and often hosted the ornithologist at his home in South Carolina. He also aided Audubon with The Birds and, later, his son in completing a similarly ground-breaking work on North American mammals. The knowledge about Bachman that I didn’t come by easily as a white person, however, was that he was a staunch supporter and early creator of the movement to prove slavery as Biblical, sanctioned by God. In pre-Civil War turmoil, Bachman quickly became an extremist on the subject, even shocking some of his contemporaries. Just read his correspondence quoted in an 1854 article titled “The Southern Apostasy” that appeared in the New Englander (13). This was racism of the worst kind: “sanctioned by God”, advertising slaves as a separate and inferior race. As a Christian, I shake my head in sadness and horror, knowing that I am called to love and accept everyone, no matter what. Regardless of your religious convictions, or lack thereof, love and acceptance are basic human principles that really don’t have as many different interpretations as we claim they do. People will say anything to hold onto their lifestyles.


John Bachman. Wikimedia Commons.

As friends, Audubon named several species after Bachman. They include the Bachman’s Sparrow, a rare and declining species of old-growth pine forest, deserving much more than to be named in honor of a racist preacher of pre-war South Carolina. Add to the sparrow an extinct southern warbler and the Latin name of Black Oystercatcher. I haven’t even gotten past English names to honorifically bestowed Latin names!


Bachman's Pinewood Finch (Sparrow). John James Audubon, Bowen Edition

After my own reevaluating, though still very much in the process, I am in full support of removing honorific English (and Latin) names from North American birds and beyond. That’s somewhere far greater than 150 species here. The life histories of these white men have nothing to do with the life histories of the birds that bear their names. Though some had more redeemable qualities than others—I can’t say I knew them personally—naming is treated as a trophy nonetheless. If it isn’t enough that men like Bachman had a very twisted sense of reality, then take this for further reasoning to change honorific bird names: many of the early “ornithologists” had never even seen alive the birds they were named for by more well-travelled men like Audubon. Taking Bachman for example, he only discovered, much less saw, one of the three species Audubon named for him (14). A more extreme example I’ve come across is Lawrence’s Goldfinch, a stunner of our western realms. The small finch was originally discovered by John Bell in California, but named by John Cassin for New York ornithologist George Lawrence (15). That could easily become a tongue twister.

Furthermore, an honorific name is not descriptive of the bird itself or the ecosystem it inhabits. What sets the Lawrence’s Goldfinch apart from Lesser or American Goldfinches? Which, by the way, could have more descriptive names themselves, since the trio are all small and occur in America. Lest we take things too far, Lawrence’s Goldfinch could be differentiated from the bunch with a name like Chaparral Goldfinch, for example, in honor of the more arid habitats that set it apart from its relatives (16). In making such changes, do we forget the names of those who made contributions to science? Certainly not! History is important, as is documenting the discovery of a species. However, we must remember the founders of our field with transparency, not glossing over a name and expecting no one to dig deeper into the letters that spell “McCown”, “Audubon”, and others. If that isn’t enough, again consider how science should not be a trophy. It is something for all, not for one.

Our early ornithologists were borne of a different time, when racist underpinnings of humanity were largely ignored in America. Unfortunately, that tide hasn’t turned as much as it should have by now. As part of the ongoing healing process, I don’t believe early ornithologists should be honored through leaving a legacy on a community that is not only white enough, but has birds deserving of names that do not act as trophies to discovery, some of them hurtful. In addition to still being the foremost name in ornithology, “Audubon” is attached to several species: an oriole of arid subtropics and a shearwater of wide open oceans; neither of which was discovered by Audubon or likely even seen by him. No doubt the bird names should be reevaluated.

Audubon's Oriole, Salineño, Texas

A particularly sticky situation is one I’ve seen recently, in which some are calling for the renaming of Audubon societies. This is tough indeed and something I have no deep expertise to speak from. However, having grown up around marketing with some business training, I do know that rebranding a large organization would not only take resources away from their goals of conservation and education, but could totally destroy one of ornithology’s leading organizations. That could be devastating at a critical time when public lands and environmental legislations are at stake. Perhaps a better approach is the one it seems National Audubon is taking, which is full transparency and condemnation of John James Audubon’s past. In a situation such as this, talks of reevaluation become particularly important. Some things are much easier to accomplish than others (ie. changing bird names). As someone who has not felt the pain from a name like Audubon, I feel unqualified to speak further and am totally receptive to any proactive, antiracist future directions.

I’ll address my last point, which is renouncing one of the haunting claims that someone wouldn’t pursue birding (insert any career) just because of a name. As I hope you’ve seen by now, it isn’t just the names themselves that are the problem. It’s the whole institution resulting in those names and the fact that we, as a community, have never really done anything to right the wrongs of those who started the fields we love surrounding birds. As someone who is only white, I cannot speak to how it feels to be a marginalized member of a community. I know a few things though. First, follow people like J. Drew Lanham on social media and, better yet, read his book that I’ll mention again: The Home Place. Especially read this. Then you’ll have the start of a more solid understanding. There is a fear that we as white birders and avian ecologists will never understand. In one chapter, Lanham discusses conducting a breeding bird survey in backwoods South Carolina, spending what feels like a nerve-wracked eternity in front of a house proudly flying a Confederate flag (17). If I, as a left-leaning-moderate, white male have felt discomfort in places like this, then I cannot even fathom how it feels to be anything but white in this position.

Second, I’d like to recount a story that I was involved with several years ago. The Arkansas Audubon Society meets twice annually, in different regions of the state. One September found the organization in the Mississippi Delta of southern Arkansas at a popular resort, really a duck hunting club. Members gathered for a weekend of birding in bottomland, hoping for stray wading birds dispersing north from breeding grounds. Most incredibly, we had acquired a Saturday evening speaker from National Audubon, Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, their VP of Diversity and Inclusion. An inspiring Black woman, she spoke on diversity and inclusion in an effort to raise awareness in Audubon societies around the country. Unfortunately, she passed away just months after gracing us with her presence. It was a great program, that is, until it was interrupted by the white owner of the “resort” and friends who, out of nowhere, wanted the space to play music for companions. We were told we had to be out of the space. Fortunately, Dr. Taylor Smith was nearly done with her presentation, but really it was too late. Her time in southeast Arkansas as a Black woman, unsurprisingly, had been tainted. While the “resort” was contractually obligated to allow us access well into the night, we found ourselves quite literally kicked to the curb early in the evening. We were told not to return, so it was lucky we were even able to go back to our rooms and stay the last night. To my knowledge, no one ever actually said we had to be out because a Black woman was speaking on diversity and inclusion, but you do the math**. This region is among some of the most racist in the country.

To end, our community as birders and avian ecologists must reevaluate and move forward in a more positive way if it is to survive. And I think we all agree that it has to survive. Not only are birds important to all of us in bringing some sense of joy, but they are some of the most charismatic ambassadors for conservation. Too, the ornithological community is an important driving force when it comes to ecology, conservation, and education. It would be in the field’s best interest to be inclusive for all so those messages can be relayed in a way that benefits everyone equally. Without allowing other, non-white perspectives to enter into this community and feel at home, it will fail. Not to mention, marginalizing other humans is just morally wrong.

In “Birding While Black” and The Home Place, J. Drew Lanham provides a “prescription” to this issue in a paragraph that gives me chills (3, 17). His advice is injecting more color into the field. Color that can only strengthen the innate tie we as humans have to the land. Color that will strengthen our conservation messages. Color that will make us more whole. But without making necessary changes, none of this will happen. It isn’t going to be an easy road ahead, as I’ve seen the reluctance to change in my own ornithological community, but I hope this message was well-received and acted to open minds and lighten hearts rather than anger. If you are angry, then I’m sorry. Know that you are heard, but evaluate whether or not the anger you feel is from a productive place. So too, I hope non-ornithologists get something here, because everything I’ve said applies broadly to other aspects of our lives. In a time when it feels as though the world may be ending, there is hope. Just open your eyes and look at a bird.

*During the writing of this piece, the NACC of the AOS voted to change the name of McCown’s Longspur to Thick-billed Longspur. A step in the right direction that has no effect whatsoever, other than allowing our community to take one more step towards antiracism and inclusion.


**I should note that this is what I perceived of the situation based on what I witnessed and information I was privy to from the society's president at the time. As the adage goes, perception is everything. I have recently discovered the society was issued a refund for the event space, so there was at least an admission of wrongdoing in some aspect.


Literature Cited

1. American Ornithological Society. 2020 Jun 2. Message from AOS President and The Diversity & Inclusion Committee. <https://americanornithology.org/message-from-aos-president-and-the-diversity-inclusion-committee/>


2. American Ornithological Society. 2015 Mar. Diversity Statement. <https://americanornithology.org/about/governance/diversity-statement/>


3. Lanham, J.D. 2016 Sep 22. Birding While Black. Literary Hub. <https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/>


4. With, K. A. 2020. McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. <https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.mcclon.01>


5. Polston, M. 2020. John Porter McCown (1815-1879). Encyclopedia of Arkansas. <https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/john-porter-mccown-9015/>


6. Elbein, A. 2020 Jul 02. The Bird World is Grappling With its Own Confederate Relic: McCown’s Longspur. <https://www.audubon.org/news/-bird-world-grappling-its-own-confederate-relic-mccowns-longspur>


7. McAtee, W. L. 1956. Facetious monickers for American birds. American Speech 31:180- 187.


8. Saha, P. 2018 Jun 8. A Hat Tip to the Women Who Started Modern Bird Conservation in the U.S. National Audubon Society. <https://www.audubon.org/news/a-hat-tip-women-who-started-modern-bird-conservation-us>


9. Yarnold, D. 2020 Jul 31. Revealing the Past to Create the Future. National Audubon Society. <https://www.audubon.org/news/revealing-past-create-future?ms=digital-eng-email-ea-x-engagement_20200811_eng-email_john-james-audubon&utm_source=ea&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=engagement_20200811_eng-email&utm_content=john-james-audubon&emci=8845999f-4de1-ea11-8b03-00155d0394bb&emdi=a52b93e4-80e1-ea11-8b03-00155d0394bb&ceid=3501853>


10. Nobles, G. 2020 Jul 31. The Myth of John James Audubon. National Audubon Society. <https://www.audubon.org/news/the-myth-john-james-audubon?ms=digital-eng-email-ea-x-engagement_20200811_eng-email_john-james-audubon&emci=8845999f-4de1-ea11-8b03-00155d0394bb&emdi=a52b93e4-80e1-ea11-8b03-00155d0394bb&ceid=3501853&utm_source=ea&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=engagement_20200811_eng- email&utm_content=john-james-audubon>


11. Nobles, G. 2017. John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, USA.


12. Audubon, J. J. 1827-1838. Birds of America. <https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america>


13. Bacon, L. 1854. The Southern Apostasy. New Englander 12:627-662. <https://books.google.com/books?id=DPMaAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=bachman&f=false>


14. Dunning, J. B., P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten. 2020. Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. <https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bacspa.01>


15. Cassin, J. 1851. Descriptions of new species of birds of the genera Parus. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 5:103-106. <https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/17633#page/124/mode/2up>


16. Watt, D. J., P. Pyle, M. A. Patton, and J. N. Davis. 2020. Lawrence’s Goldfinch (Spinus lawrencei), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. <https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.lawgol.01>


17. Lanham, J.D. 2017. The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, MN, USA.


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