Statement on the McCown’s Longspur Naming Issue

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.  

Helpful Resources


  1. I think perhaps you’re getting too caught up in the passions of the day. You would have to really dig hard to link the name McCown’s Longspur to slavery and support of slavery. You would almost have to be looking to be offended.

    1. Yes, I agree, although i think many would be offended by such comments! I was “unfriended” by a longtime friend on Facebook who became offended by me agreeing to a similar comment! My opinion is gradually becoming one that NOW says, why stop at merely changing names of anything or anyone who has committed some form of racism? Why not include ANYONE’s name who has committed ANY offense against anyone or any thing? Racism is just the latest big trend! Why not change the names of those things that were named after people who have a prejudice against anything, anyone or any place? THAT way we’ll have it ALL covered!

  2. Unbelievable. Political correctness run amok…if 1% of all North American birders, black, white, or other have any idea who the hell McCown was, I’d be astonished! If no one knows who he was, how can anyone be offended?

    1. Were people trying to sound pompous, old and out of touch with their comments? I’m certainly not a teenager (infact over 50) but think all the eponymous names should change. What is best for the birds? Simply names that match them and can draw anyone into the magic of birdwatching. Have you ever thought how much easier it to say ‘look at the black throated blue in the Maple ‘ instead of looking at the Wilson’s’ . The birds don’t belong to Wilson as that apostrophe suggests, they are for everyone to enjoy and if we want everyone to care we should provide descriptive names that reflect that.

  3. I support this name change. It would reflect the ongoing and evolving understanding of the harm of systemic racism in this country. The current name In no way adds to our understanding of the bird and a name change would not compromise scientific knowledge in any way. The proposal last year stopped short of suggesting other honorifics. If one would be considered I would suggest either J. Drew Lanham or Christian Cooper, both of whom are responsible for our current greater awareness of the systematic exclusions embedded in our understanding of the natural world.

  4. Birding must be welcoming to all. For too long, Black and brown birders, naturalists, and outdoor-enthusiasts have been both explicitly and subtlety made unwelcome in the outdoors. It’s time to change this in any way we can, and renaming the McCowns Longspur is relatively simple step in the right direction. But sadly, the decision to reject the name change is another door closed, another sign that systems of power aren’t willing to change for the benefit of others. We can do better.

  5. Terrible idea to change scientific publications due to the outrage of a few “woke” teenagers on Facebook.

  6. @ FP Davis: If you don’t know who he was, why do you defend him? Obscurity is not an excuse. And no matter how far your “anti correctness” campaigning goes, don’t expect apologies from those trying to improve the community.

  7. Excellent news. I would also encourage reconsideration of the honorific titles for John Kirk Townsend. JK Townsend desecrated and robbed graves of the Chinook and Kalaypuya people to supply phrenologist Samuel George Morton (1) skulls for Crania Americana (2). Crania America is perhaps the most important book in the history of scientific racism (3).

    So for social justice and for fun, I propose we change the common name of Setophaga townsendi to the Community Warbler as a nice compliment to its closest relative Setophaga occidentalis, the Hermit Warbler.
    Here are resources supporting the claims made in my post.

  8. If people didn’t know who the McCown’ was of the McCown’s Longspur, they do now. And continuing with the name leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. And not only that, NOW that we know, will people cast aspersions on a poor innocent bird with it’s Confederate-heavy name? And why should Audubon not live up to the standards people (young and old) consider hurtful to some of our fellow citizens.

    Finally, if there is anyone who has tried so hard to be a part of the Audubon community, one would have to say that person’s name is Christian Cooper. Chris Cooper was birding, and was upholding the law to PROTECT THE BIRDS. To me, Cooper is a birding hero. Besides, “Cooper’s Longspur” sounds nice, and would put Audubon back on track. Change is happening, like it or not.

    Vanity Fair Article: On Monday, May 27, 2020 in Central Park, a black birder, Christian Cooper, asked Amy Cooper, a white woman, to leash her dog in the Ramble, as required by the park and as needed to PROTECT THE BIRDS there. Christian Cooper recorded her incensed reaction: Amy Cooper frantically shouted at him, called the police, lied about being threatened, and repeatedly emphasized on the phone that he was African American.

  9. I may be in the minority here, but I believe that eponymous names for birds are descriptively and ecologically useless – just as an example, Saltmarsh Sparrow gives a good basic description of a bird and where you might find it, while the name Lincoln’s Sparrow tells you basically nothing. There is not a single good one, and I think they should all be done away with and replaced with more descriptive names (or perhaps names given to them by indigenous people, if they are known). That way there is no need for a debate on how ‘bad’ one historical figure is compared to another.

  10. I DO know who John Porter McCown was, and so does my brother, Porter!
    He is a distant relative of ours from whom we were named. I should change my name because he was in the confederate army.
    Changing my name or the name of that bird would do not ONE THING to advance the efforts we are all making today towards love, equality, and understanding of each other.
    The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond , VA still stands in litigation yet has been spray painted, has been the site of numerous unlawful assemblies (some turning quite violent), and most disturbing, has been woefully neglected by the City of Richmond; it is fenced in with the grass growing knee high. It looks like a rotten egg in an Easter basket!
    Should we “cancel” anyone involved with this vandalism, thwarting any attempt they may make in the future to do something CONSTRUCTIVE with their lives because of their behavior at this emotional time? Of course not.
    They were doing only what they believed was right at the time.

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