Short Take: Birds Of A Feather

When you heard the name “Audubon,” what came to mind? A guy who created the authoritative illustrations in Birds of America? Bird sanctuaries? The protection of nature and critters? If so, then you are not woke. If you were woke, something different came to mind.

John James Audubon, for whom the Audubon’s shearwater is named, was an unrepentant slaveholder who opposed emancipation.

But that was merely the start, not the end, of the progressive correction of history to conform it to only those who meet today’s woke virtue.

On Nov. 1, the American Ornithological Society announced that it would be renaming all the birds under its purview that are currently named for human beings. The birds’ new names will reflect the species’ appearance or habitat — some trait associated with the actual bird, in other words, and not with the colonial explorer who first identified it.

This change, which will affect some 150 North American birds, has been a long time coming. Ornithologists and amateur birders alike have long wrestled with the historical nature of bird names bestowed by early collectors. The norms of that era were themselves problematic, as explorers tromped across an already occupied landscape, killing, collecting and naming after themselves thousands of animals and plants that had already been given human names by people who lived more ecologically responsible lives.

Remember when it was only about taking down confederate statues put up in the south in the 1950s to celebrate racism, for we would never destroy history. We would never slide down the slippery slope like the Taliban blowing up ancient statues. And then we did, but the slide had only just begun.

The idea that some of the most beautiful birds in North America still carry those ugly names is objectionable to a lot of us, a scar from the past still enshrined in the present like a Confederate statue installed in a town square or a robber baron’s name gracing a university building. Such monuments represent history, it’s true, and history should not be forgotten. But neither should it be celebrated wholesale, especially when the bigotries and injustices of the past are too often on clear display in our own age.

There is nothing wrong with choosing to name birds for their identifying characteristics, and if that’s the name given, like the Whooping Crane, wonderful. But this is about taking birds whose names have been accepted for centuries and changing them for no reason other than someone’s compulsion to find and eradicate the names of people long dead who fail to live up to woke standards. Which means pretty much everyone except for Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and we’re not too sure about him either.

Picture someone with purple hair sitting alone at night in a dark room searching for any taint about the forgotten person behind a bird name, desperately seeking proof that they went to dinner at the home of a friend whose neighbor had slaves and failed to demand their immediate freedom. Can we possibly allow that person’s name to be “celebrated” by being borne by a bird?

But symbols have always mattered to our species. Like names themselves, they tell us something about who we are, what we value, how we belong to the world. If renaming the birds becomes part of a broad reorientation toward nature itself, it’s a symbolic gesture that could be the start of saving it all. The birds, and us.

Or it’s a symbolic gesture that “could be” absurd hubris wrapped in a pink bow of infantile narcissism. Audubon Sanctuaries did more to orient American society toward nature, not to mention preserve nature, than renaming birds could ever do. And yet, when you run out of statues to tear down, you eventually reach bird names for lack of anything worthwhile to demonstrate your righteousness.

9 thoughts on “Short Take: Birds Of A Feather

  1. Rxc

    How many of the people who have been pushing for a cleansing of the language have done a thorough examination of their own family histories, to determine how innocent they, themselves are? And the families of all of their friends and colleagues? And how does this wholesale upheaval of language help us better communicate with one another? I don’t think it does, and I think that the chaos and insecurities that it generates are the main goal of the effort.

  2. chaswjd

    We have forgotten Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s insight that the dividing line between good and evil runs through the human heart. How many of the purple-haired referenced in the original post, had they been teens or twenty-somethings in 1930’s Germany, would have become Nazis as the intellectual movement du jour? How many would have been supporters of Russian communism or of the Cultural Revolution had they been at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time?

    While it may be difficult to hold the two ideas in one’s mind at the same time, we ought to be able to celebrate the vision and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while simultaneously recognizing that he was a serial adulterer. At the same time, we ought to be able to recognize that Mr. Audubon had views about ecology far ahead of his time while simultaneously holding view of slavery that were far behind the times.

  3. Denverite

    Thank goodness these people have decided this project of world shaking importance is worth spending time and energy in their solipsistic quest for virtue, rainbows, and unicorns rather than something a bit more consequential. More significant is the fact that the NYT featured this at some length. The competition between the NYT and the WaPo for examples of wonderful activism to feature is clearly heating up. The Post is very much in the lead though with their recent rants about Shark Week only featuring persons of pallor as experts and the dire ecological danger of curated ice in fancy cocktails. So many causes — so little time.

  4. B. McLeod

    If they are going to go off on this bent, they should research and restore the names used for the birds by the indigenous cultures in the birds’ respective lands of origin. Otherwise, they are simply repeating the cultural violence of the original colonizers.

  5. L.Phillips

    In my part of the world the predominate tribes are now referred to as Paiute, Goshute and Ute. In all cases the Spanish explorers generally considered to be the first “white” people to venture herein reported small groups of sagebrush huts harboring a diminutive people who lived a nomadic, brutish and short life. That description could be dismissed as colonial condescension except that their descendants readily concur with those reports and revere their ancestors for doing so.

    So you will pardon my sardonic laughter when those who endured that life are presented as “people who lived more ecologically responsible lives” while trying to make an idiotic point. I suppose we are all walking fertilizer, but still. . .

  6. Curtis

    I wonder how older birders will react to being told they are racist for bragging about their pictures of a Cooper’s Hawk or a Henslow’s Sparrow? Are they a big enough group to shift a swing state?

  7. Elpey P.

    It’s as if Southern Baptists are running the DEI apparatus.

    “they tell us something about who we are, what we value, how we belong to the world”

    This attitude is essentially a de facto endorsement of every other terrible thing known to be done by everyone else whose name is being kept. Maybe a humanist approach to existing names would be more sustainable. Speaking of which, how has the Democratic Party not had to change its name?

  8. Rengit

    Call me an optimist, but this is most likely to mean that the older books and journals with the real names of these birds, and yes, these old names are the real names, will become much more valuable, remain in unofficial prints, copied on the internet, etc, while the AOA and its “official” pronouncements fade into irrelevance as they insist on calling birds by their new, appropriate names like the Upper Shenandoah Warbler or Tubman’s Tern.

    Organizations like the AOA don’t have the benefit of statutory imprimatur or government support like we lawyers’ own woke ABA does, so how are newly woke non-government bodies like the AOA supposed to remain viable, especially when moves like this alienate philanthropists who love birds and had been thinking about bequeathing a hefty sum beforehand? There’s only so many woke dollars to go around for those obsessed with renaming things.

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