Bird named for Confederate general sparks debate

The McCown’s longspur is named for John P. McCown, an amateur ornithologist who became a Confederate general. Credit: Bettina Arrigoni

As America grapples with whether or not to remove Confederate monuments, the birding world is dealing with its own dilemma — birds whose scientific or casual names refer to Confederate officers and other figures whose place in history is being called into question.

For the second time in two years, the American Ornithological Society is reconsidering the name of McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). The bird is named for John P. McCown, an amateur ornithologist credited with discovering the species. Ten years later, though, McCown joined the Confederate Army, where he was served as major general.

Some birders have taken to social media, scientific listservs and petitions to argue that honoring McCown means honoring what he stood for.

The society’s North American Classification Committee has been resistant to changing bird names on the grounds of cultural sensitivity, Audubon reports. But on June 30, the committee said it is “preparing a new, more complete proposal to change the name of McCown’s longspur, one framed against the backdrop of current events.”

The discussion comes amid nationwide protests for racial justice and a recognition of racism affecting Black birders.

Read more in Audubon.