North American Classification Committee, American Ornithological Society (AOS)
Prompted in part by a 2019 proposal to change the English name of McCown’s Longspur, the North American Classification Committee developed and published new guidelines for English bird names that specifically address the issue of potentially offensive eponyms or other names. While continuing to emphasize the fundamental nomenclatural principle of stability, the Committee sought to avoid perpetuating harm and placed greater emphasis on present-day societal standards, demonstrating a willingness to reconsider name change proposals as societal standards change. The Committee consulted with AOS leaders and external parties, including past and present chairs of the AOS Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, while updating the guidelines. In response to recent events and in consideration of the updated guidelines, the Committee is currently preparing a new, more complete proposal to change the name of McCown’s Longspur, one framed against the backdrop of current events. As with all proposals, this proposal and the Committee’s response will be publicly available on our website.
The argument in the 2019 proposal was based largely on the significant role that McCown played in the Confederate army during the U.S. Civil War. The Committee rejected this proposal based on a number of factors, prominent among them the lack (at that time) of a general policy by which to judge a name change proposed on the basis of offensiveness. Additional considerations included the lack of recognition in the proposal of McCown’s substantial contributions to ornithology; the fact that the bird name predated the Civil War and was unrelated to his role in the Confederacy; the lack of evidence personally associating McCown with slaveholding, including his upbringing in a region of Tennessee generally opposed to slavery; and McCown’s strong anti-Confederacy comments during the war. The Committee recognizes that the new guidelines present an opportunity to reconsider these factors within the context of a broader cultural landscape.
In contrast to the policy enunciated two decades ago, the new guidelines explicitly acknowledge that “there may be English names that cause sufficient offense to warrant change on that basis alone.” Moreover, regarding eponyms, the new guidelines note that “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.” The Committee recognizes that assessments of history, current society, and the impact of symbols and names can be subjective and based in part on each individual’s identity and experience. Individuals will differ on where to draw the line between retaining names in broad usage (based on nomenclatural stability, ornithological contributions, etc.) and changing them based on any criteria (social or otherwise), but the Committee welcomes proposals to change English names that frame these issues against current societal norms.