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To Make Birding Inclusive, Some Birds Will Need New Names Without Colonial Roots

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

America is trying to come to terms with its complicated racial past. Cities are taking down statues of Confederate generals. The Pentagon is changing the names of military bases that honor the Confederacy. Now scientists are trying to find new names for more than a hundred birds named after people. As WKSU's Jeff St. Clair reports, it's part of an effort to make bird-watching more inclusive.

JEFF ST CLAIR, BYLINE: When early naturalists discovered a new bird, they often named it after a friend or colleague. There's...

KENN KAUFMAN: Wilson's warbler and Swainson's warbler and Kirtland's warbler. Then you've got Nuttall's woodpecker and Cassin's vireo, Cassin's auklet. And you go off into the sparrows, and there's Botteri's sparrow and Bachman's sparrow.

ST CLAIR: Kenn Kaufman is the author of several birding field guides. We met at one of his favorite birding spots near Lake Erie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

ST CLAIR: Kaufman, like many birders, hadn't paid much attention to the people behind the bird names - that is, until he learned more about that last guy.

KAUFMAN: Bachman was actually a Lutheran minister in South Carolina. Bachman also fancied himself to be a scientist, and part of what he wrote about was just the idea that suggesting that whites were just naturally superior to members of other races.

ST CLAIR: As justification for slavery. The American Ornithological Society, the group governing bird names, asked Kaufman to serve on a committee looking into how to change some or all of the names of the 149 North American birds named after people. Society President Mike Webster is committed to the idea.

MIKE WEBSTER: We want to and will change those bird names that need to be changed.

ST CLAIR: He says last year McCown's longspur was renamed the thick-billed longspur after it was noted that John McCown was a Confederate general. But Webster cautions that common names provide guidance for those navigating the scientific literature.

WEBSTER: And if you overnight changed the names of a quarter of the streets in a particular city, that would cause chaos.

ST CLAIR: The name-change movement is part of a growing awareness that bird-watching needs to be more inclusive.

NICOLE JACKSON: I feel like it's a start.

ST CLAIR: Nicole Jackson is a birder in Columbus, Ohio. She's one of the organizers of Black Birders Week, which was first held last year after a Black birder was accosted by a white woman in Central Park. One goal is to highlight a shared interest in nature.

JACKSON: Black people are in these spaces. We just need to talk about it more, and we need to feel like we have enough of a community for us to talk to each other and feel safe.

ST CLAIR: Tykee James is a birder in Washington, D.C., and an organizer of Black Birders Week.

TYKEE JAMES: As an activist in the birding community, I would say that I'm seeking to decolonize the birding experience.

ST CLAIR: Names, James says, should say something about the birds themselves, like red-winged blackbird or yellow-bellied sapsucker or their natural history.

JAMES: Not these glorifications to folks that would not want people like me birding today. They would be upset if the birding community was trying to decolonize.

ST CLAIR: Birder Tykee James says science needs to be accountable to the present day, and the renaming is just a small part of that process.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff St. Clair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SG LEWIS' "REST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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