• 2020-S-1: Change the English name of Rhynchophanes mccownii

2020-S-1: Change the English name of Rhynchophanes mccownii

YES. This new proposal to change the English name of McCown’s Longspur presents a compelling case for why we should reconsider this issue. In regard to English names, my preferences in order are: Thick-billed Longspur, Bay-winged Longspur, Shortgrass Longspur. Final vote: Thick-billed Longspur.

YES, based on the more thoroughly researched new proposal and our new guidelines. McCown’s resignation from the Union to fight for the Confederacy, his high rank, his return to it after being court-martialed, and the flag in his museum all point to his active defense of slavery. He was not among those many hapless Southerners who were conscripted into service. He was not among those Confederates given post-war amnesty by Lincoln nor initially by Johnson, and Coues’s eventual decision not to use this eponym seems telling (thanks to a Committee member for providing this information).

The name McCown’s Longspur now presents an obstacle to the important AOS goal of promotion of diversity and inclusivity. Thus, I conclude that his name should not continue to be used as the English name for this or any species. Fortunately, there are several very good options for replacement names. My top three choices are: 1) Thick-billed; 2) Shortgrass (with or without the hyphen); 3) Buffalo. My top choice is the highly apt name “Thick-billed Longspur” although I agree that Shortgrass is more evocative, making it almost a toss-up for me.

YES. While the name McCown’s Longspur was established prior to the Civil War, it has since become closely associated with the Confederacy and what it represents. In part, and as a result of McCown’s voluntary actions in joining the Confederate army and rising to the rank of major general, the name McCown’s Longspur has become a symbol of racism and slavery, and therefore should be rejected and replaced. This is an important but small step in helping to address inequality and promote inclusion and diversity in the AOS and ornithological community.

In voting for a new English name, my initial top three choices were Shortgrass Longspur, Thick-billed Longspur, and Bay-winged Longspur. My final vote is for Shortgrass Longspur. While I am fine with Thick-billed Longspur, the name Shortgrass Longspur conjures images of the beautiful, windswept Shortgrass Prairie, where the species can breed in high abundance.

YES. When the proposal to change the name of this longspur was first presented in 2018, I voted YES, to change the name of this species. My vote remains YES, and my reasoning for both votes is outlined in the current proposal. The only thing that made me somewhat hesitant in 2018 was the lack of a formal policy allowing for changes of this nature. Now that we have that policy, I am pleased to see a new proposal. I see changing this name as a small step towards promoting a more inclusive AOS and birding community. For the new name, my initial vote of top three: Shortgrass, Thick-billed, and Bay-winged. My final vote is Thick-billed.

YES. I abstained on the 2018 McCown’s vote pending two broader considerations, as explained in my comments at that time.

First, I thought we needed to create a written set of guidelines or policies on which to base this kind of decision given how rarely in the Committee’s history that societal matters had been presented as a justification for changing names. The few former precedents, mostly from decades ago, were simply not appropriate (as everyone on the NACC fully agreed). We followed up immediately by drafting and revising a modernized set of guidelines, including in that process consultation with the leaders of the AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Those guidelines now provide an established basis against which to weigh the pro/con implications of this and any other potential name changes with societal components. This turns out to be a fortunate NACC advance because it meant that we had these guidelines in place prior to the intense interest of 2020 on the intersection of English bird names and social justice, allowing us to be proactive rather than reactive to the enhanced interest in this area.

Second, I thought we should do a more comprehensive review to see where McCown falls in the spectrum of eponymic individuals whose beliefs or conduct would be considered harmful or offensive, either during their day or by present-day standards. That comprehensive review has not been done, yet enough attention has been paid to this topic recently that it is clear that McCown’s service in the Confederacy is indeed somewhere at the solidly negative end of the spectrum of ways in which eponymic 18th and 19th century ornithologists might have engaged in harmful practices. By changing this name, our committee (and our community) have opened a very important ongoing dialogue about the many considerations that bear upon naming issues.

In this context, I note that the new proposal is much stronger than the original because it is more detailed about both McCown’s ornithological contributions and about his choices regarding the Confederacy. Proposals that achieve this balance will always be stronger than those that advocate for only one position, even when there is a single strongly supported outcome. In essence, proposal authors make their case stronger when they present all considerations because their sole proposal is all we have to work with, and our system is set up such that we rely on proposal writers to give us all of the relevant information. This is as true for societal considerations as it is for evidence (in other kinds of decisions) about genetic versus behavioral lines of evidence for biological species status.

Regarding this particular name change, a central consideration for me involves the phrase in our 2019 guidelines that reads “…the Committee strives to strike a balance that recognizes the principle of nomenclatural stability while respecting circumstances in which names should be reconsidered to reflect present-day ethical principles or to avoid ongoing harm.” I personally give substantial weight to the principle of stability as applied to taxonomy and nomenclature for reasons of continuity of communication and broad stakeholder engagement, and I apply this to many situations involving eponyms. Yet as stated in the guidelines, this demands a balance, and it is utterly clear that there is a real ‘ongoing harm’ consideration as regards McCown. It is worth noting that what this bird name symbolizes has changed over its history. The name “McCown’s Longspur” did not originally have any association with the Confederacy nor with slavery (because it substantially pre-dated the Civil War). It acquired that harmful association secondarily, when McCown chose to serve in the Confederate Army. And in this moment in the year 2020, the public debate over this particular name has elevated that harmful association even further to the point that the name, for many in our stakeholder groups, has ceased being about a little brown bird of the prairies and instead become a direct symbol of many things (slavery specifically and exclusionary history more broadly) that every one of us on the committee (and probably all members of the AOS) would reject as reprehensible.

My new name preferences are :

  1. Shortgrass (highly appropriate name based on a distinctive habitat specialization)
  2. Thick-billed (an ultra-boring name. By my count there are 21 other bird species worldwide already named Thick-billed Something)
  3. Bay-winged (unfortunate similarity to the name of the two species of “Baywings” in the genus Agelaioides, formerly the “Bay-winged Cowbird” when they were in Molothrus.

YES. Promoting anti-racism within AOS should be a top priority and is the impetus for this change. Changing the English name of McCown’s Longspur represents a tangible, immediate way in which the NACC can promote a more inclusive ornithological society and denounce racism. As others have noted, McCown is an outlier among other eponymous English names and should be replaced. Decisions to change common names should be done sparingly and judiciously—this one is clearly merited for the reasons outlined in the proposal. That said, this is a very small step forward and there is still enormous work to be done to fully support Black birders and ornithologists.

With respect to the English name, in the first round of voting, I voted for Bay-winged Longspur as it refers to the most prominent field mark to my eye, followed by Thick-billed Longspur, and then Shortgrass Longspur.

In the second round of voting, I vote for Thick-billed Longspur as it is an excellent field mark that is present year-round in both males and females. ‘Thick-billed’ also roughly matches the translation of Rhynchophanes, the monotypic genus that includes said longspur.

YES. This proposal has much more information than the previous one and makes a more compelling case for change. Because I am changing my vote this time, I’ll explain my reasoning. I am reluctant to pass judgment on historical figures based on the values of our times and think it is important to use much more heavily the values of their contemporaries. It is too easy to focus on one thing we consider bad today and write off a person’s accomplishments, and society in general tends to deal with these issues in a careful, more nuanced way (e.g., George Washington). As the proposal relates, the name McCown’s Longspur predates the Civil War by a decade and was given for McCown’s ornithological contributions.

To many now, however, McCown is recognized primarily as a symbol of the Confederacy. His infamy for that has overtaken his renown as an ornithologist. Were his actions in that war regarded as egregious at the time? From ornithological records this was not very clear. Elliott Coues, ornithologist and surgeon in the U.S. Army, used McCown’s name for the bird in his Key to North American Birds (1872), suggesting that a key contemporary did not see fit to remove it when that might have been most appropriate, given the freshness of that war.

But with further research, it is clear that McCown’s behavior was recognized as egregious at the time. In addition to the information given in the proposal regarding the timing of his resigning his commission in the U.S. Army, McCown was excluded from Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction (1863) in two ways: by his rank and by his changed allegiance (my emphasis in italics):

“The persons excepted from the benefits of the foregoing provisions are all who are, or shall have been, civil or diplomatic officers or agents of the so-called Confederate government; all who have left judicial stations under the United States to aid the rebellion; all who are, or shall have been, military or naval officers of said so-called Confederate government above the rank of colonel in the army or of lieutenant in the navy; all who left seats in the United States congress to aid the rebellion; all who resigned commissions in the army or navy of the United States and afterwards aided the rebellion; and all who have engaged in any way in treating colored persons, or white persons in charge of such, otherwise than lawfully as prisoners of war, and which persons may have been found in the United States service as soldiers, seamen, or in any other capacity.”

He was also excluded by President Johnson’s proclamation of 29 May 1865. It is not clear whether he received one of the 12,652 pardons that were issued by 5 June 1866, but if not he would have been pardoned on Christmas Day 1868 as part of President Johnson’s efforts at reconstruction:

“unconditionally, and without reservation … a full pardon and amnesty for the offence of treason against the United States, or of adhering to their enemies during the late Civil War, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws.”

Johnson’s goal in so doing was to “renew and fully restore confidence and fraternal feeling among the whole, and their respect for and attachment to the national government, designed by its patriotic founders for the general good.”

And, while the first edition of the AOU Check-list (1886) used McCown’s Longspur as the English name, Coues himself (though he was on that committee) had changed his mind on this issue and in the second edition of his Key to North American Birds (1884) chose not to use McCown’s in the English name anymore. He did not revert back in his subsequent editions (through his fifth and final edition, 1903).

Given the above, I am going to go with the proposal and with Coues on this and vote yes on a name change. While not promoting nomenclatural stability, it does remove a prominent Confederate figure (recognized by contemporaries as being outside the norms for that war) from our English names and so goes in a small way to our important job of making ornithology more inclusive.

My ranked votes for English name are Thick-billed Longspur, Bay-winged Longspur, and Shortgrass Longspur. For the second round I would choose Thick-billed Longspur.

YES. I think that the stains of McCown’s service to the Confederacy as a high commanding officer and his willingness to continue serving after his court-martial have destroyed the suitability of his name to be used as an English name by our Committee. I feel it is important to recognize the disservice that maintaining such a name would have on our Society’s ability to be welcoming to today’s diverse spectrum of avian scientists, professionals, students, and hobbyists. I am quite certain that ornithologists and birders in the coming decades and centuries will also consider the name inappropriate, and thus the standards of stability become moot.

My top three choices for a new name are: 1) Shortgrass Longspur, 2) Bay-winged Longspur, and 3) Thick-billed Longspur. I prefer English names that are evocative of place and/or bird, and find Bay-winged a bit restrictive to particular plumages, and Thick-billed, though accurate, failing to evoke any emotion at all.

YES. We will never know what McCown truly thought about slavery. The most salient FACTS, as opposed to speculations, are that he resigned his commission with the U.S. Army three weeks before Tennessee left the Union in early June 1861, and in his final years he kept some sort of Confederate Flag in his “museum” in one of his rooms. We do know that he wasn’t like Robert E. Lee who followed the state of Virginia in the course he chose. McCown didn’t wait for his state to decide. In fact earlier in the year (February) Tennessee had voted not to leave the Union before voting to secede in June.

McCown’s ornithological contributions were numerous and significant, and note that Lawrence in naming the longspur for McCown referred to him as his friend. Note too that McCown’s museum had a copy of Audubon’s seminal work. Yet, his ornithological contributions had come to an end nearly three decades before he died.

The American Civil War will long be debated for the causes, but for many of us it was certainly most closely associated with slavery. Slavery continued to fester as an issue almost immediately after the passage of the Constitution and Congress wrestled repeatedly with it, maybe easing the fracture temporarily, but it always reemerged as new states entered, the debate being whether to enter as free or slave states. So, we have the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas- Nebraska Act of 1854. I believe it is clear that from the Union side, the war at the beginning was primarily an issue of restoring the Union, not ending slavery, and this was clearly stated by Lincoln. Later, after the Emancipation Proclamation (after Antietam, late 1862), and the 13th,14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution slavery and other associated evils became much more of a controlling issue. After the Civil War, there was a real effort to enforce in the South what had been passed. Black people made major advances across the board, including in political representation. This all came to an end in the Corrupt Bargain election of 1876 where the Democrat Tilden should have been President. In order to get Hayes (a Republican) declared the winner, the North agreed to pull troops out of the South. The KKK became dominant (founded by Nathaniel Bedford Forest), and by the late 19th century the practice of separation and the disenfranchising of Black people was codified into law by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) which established and legitimized the doctrine of “Separate but Equal.” Almost as notable as the opinion, was John Marshall Harlan’s dissent which said in part: “The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while on a public highway is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified by any legal grounds.” Southern states began to put Confederate Flags into their state flags. The wall of separation throughout the South lasted for more than a half a century until Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) and especially from laws enacted during the LBJ administration in the mid-1960’s.

I say all of this as some background as to whatever went on up until Reconstruction, the Confederate Flag was used primarily as intimidation of Black people afterwards. I had been thinking about this since the issue of reconsidering our early McCown’s vote came up. While some say these symbols honor their past, or are an affirmation of states’ rights, my first and controlling thought is that they are, or were, all about intimidation. It’s gone on for far too long, for that matter on some levels the debate continues, at least from the presidential view. Therefore, at least from my perspective these symbols should be removed, from all Confederate flags of any type, and all of those statues of military and political leaders which had been erected during that period. Put them in some sort of American Civil War museum. Removing the name of McCown as the English name for the longspur is one such step. His name will live on with the specific epithet. As to what McCown was really like, how he felt about slavery, and other issues, we will never know. At this stage, and in these turbulent times, it is important to disassociate ourselves from any linkage to the Confederacy.

As for the new English name, I favor Thick-billed Longspur for the reasons I have enumerated on several occasions. It complements the prefix for the restored genus, Rhynchophanes, and describes an excellent structural field mark, useful on the ground and in flight, and applies to both sexes in all plumages. Although Shortgrass Longspur nicely describes the breeding habitat for the species, for the majority of the year (migration and winter), the species favors bare ground, often in association with Horned Larks. The other longspurs are often found in short grass, indeed Chestnut-collared and Smith’s are typically found in this habitat during migration and winter. Lapland is perhaps the most catholic of the longspurs in terms of habitat preferences. As I recall in the first round of votes for the English name change I favored in order of preference: Thick-billed, Bay-winged, and Buffalo.

YES on changing the name (for reasons outlined in the proposal). My original NO vote was based on McCown’s rebuke of the Confederacy and the time-honored principle of not judging past people by current standards. But then we learned more about McCown, and I read a fair amount on the history of slavery. I circulated a more detailed chronology of the formal abolition of slavery earlier, but it was clear that slavery was NOT regarded as normal, but instead abhorrent, by the vast majority of Western Civilization. It was abolished in Europe and throughout most of the W. Hemisphere by 1850, and in many places many decades earlier (Vermont in 1777, almost a century before the Civil War!). In 1843, all European countries had abolished slavery, and by 1860, only three countries in the W. Hemisphere besides the USA still had not outlawed slavery: Cuba, Brazil, and Paraguay. Thus, it was clear that by official cultural standards at the time of the Civil War, the beyond-odious practice of slavery was not considered “normal” for the era. The USA was an outlier, despite widespread, strong abolitionist sentiment dating into the previous century. So, with that perspective, McCown resigned his commission before secession, indicating he was “in on” the movement to retain slavery, and then spent the Civil War killing soldiers in the United States Army, in which he was trained, in order to maintain a slave state. That puts McCown, in my opinion, in a completely different zone from all the other eponymous ornithologists of the era who were largely cultural products of their era and made cultural comments that today we consider unacceptable.

Yes for Thick-billed Longspur (because this emphasizes an under-emphasized feature helpful in field identification in all plumages; the Greek translation of Rhynchophanes is, fide Jobling, “showing the bill”).

YES. This proposal provides sufficient information to show that McCown showed strong ties to the Confederacy. The facts that he resigned his commission in the Union Army prior to Tennessee seceding, returned to active duty following his court martial, and kept a Confederate flag among his personal effects for his entire life indicate that he was an active supporter of the Confederacy. Given that, and the new naming guidelines, I don’t think we can maintain McCown’s Longspur any longer.

My rankings for a new common name are Shortgrass Longspur, followed by Thick-billed Longspur and distantly by Bay-winged Longspur. On its breeding grounds, this species is associated with notably shortgrass habitats compared to the Chestnut-collared Longspur.