What’s in a name? More than you might think…

AOS leaders, including the NACC and Diversity and Inclusion Committees are working together to develop Society-level policies in our nomenclature, and to be intentional in all our activities to ensure all individuals feel welcome in our Society. We will discuss these issues at our 2020 meetings of Council and make a statement at the end of the NAOC VII meeting. We hope you will join us in our journey.   

Kathy Martin, President, AOS

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) is committed to anti-racism and addressing systemic racism. In recent weeks, we’ve been both thrilled and overwhelmed by the attention building around avian nomenclature. The outpouring of sentiment around how science, and in particular ornithology, has historically constructed its nomenclature (including a public petition asking AOS to address the issue of English bird names that are considered derogatory, offensive, or harmful) has highlighted the need to address potential relics of systemic oppression. Although our Society’s history, like that of many American societies, bears the mark of systemic oppression of marginalized communities, we are elated that, in our community, there exist many who are committed to shaping our present and future Society to reflect the values we stand for. 

The AOS, and its North American Classification Committee (NACC), recognize that continuing to use harmful English names in ornithology unfairly demands tolerance from already marginalized people, creating an unnecessary barrier to the field of ornithology with clear downstream effects felt at multiple levels of our ornithological community. While we’ve made steps and missteps over our long history in adopting new policies to address aspects of systemic oppression, we believe that systemic “diversity requires an enduring commitment to inclusion that must find full expression in the culture, values, norms, and behaviors,” and this means listening closely to underrepresented voices in ornithology and leading with meaningful change. As a Society, the AOS unequivocally supports efforts to remove impediments to inclusivity and make ornithology welcoming to all. 

The NACC also supports these efforts and, over the past decade, has made its proposal process more engaging and transparent to its diverse partners and the public. This includes creating an open process in which anyone can submit a proposal for consideration by the committee, making all proposal votes and comments available online, and forming an Early Career Systematics Group, open to students and postdocs, to foster a new, more diverse generation of scientists willing and able to contribute to the work of the committee. More recently, in October 2019, the NACC created new Guidelines for English Bird Names to facilitate, among other things, consideration of proposals seeking to change potentially derogatory, offensive, or otherwise controversial bird names. The committee realized that the previous guidelines, published in 1983 and last clarified in 2000, lacked the necessary breadth for consideration of these types of proposals through a contemporary lens. In June 2020, using the new guidelines as a frame of reference, the NACC began drafting a new proposal to change the English name of McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii), a bird named for a U.S. Army Captain and amateur ornithologist who later became an officer in the Confederate States Army. The decision to write this new proposal was motivated by a change in social perception on racial issues, particularly in recent weeks. “Present-day social standards,” a new, key phrase in the guidelines, have changed from what they were when the NACC considered the original McCown’s proposal in 2018, opening up the possibility of a different outcome. Despite McCown’s ornithological contributions, he is perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism because he chose to serve in the Confederacy. The NACC encourages and supports proposals that provide a comprehensive view of the pros and cons of a name change, and considers them on a case-by-case basis like all other proposals. Any dialogue that addresses only a single component trivializes the overall complexity in ways that can create an exclusionary outcome for any constituency whose perspectives are deemed irrelevant. The new McCown’s proposal, led by the NACC with feedback from the AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee and others, is an effort to consider a more balanced proposal, incorporating a well-researched historical background, taxonomic scrutiny, and critical consideration of this English name against the backdrop of present-day social standards. When completed, the NACC believes that this proposal could serve as a model for similar proposals in the future. 

If we are to address pervasive inequities and systemic racism authentically and collectively within the broader scientific world, we must include all voices. We cannot do this work in isolation. We’re actively working to build an engaged community around this effort, which includes AOS members, global partners, the broader birding community, and anyone who has concerns about systemic oppression in the sciences. English bird name revision is a global issue that extends beyond the purview of the NACC to other taxonomic authorities and partners. Our discussions with other global taxonomic authorities will continue, in part to maintain taxonomic stability on global lists and to minimize the disruption and confusion associated with possible future name changes. Changing a bird name takes time. Name changes for any reason involve a considerable amount of downstream work, and large-scale change will cause considerable taxonomic instability. We have a responsibility to all of our partners, among them the millions of birders and casual bird-watchers who use field guides and ID apps as natural history aids, as teaching tools, and for backyard bird identification; conservation professionals and wildlife managers; federal, state, and local government agencies; visitors and staff at refuges, parks, and nature centers; scientists; and vital citizen science initiatives such as eBird. 

The AOS, NACC, and the AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee recognize that nomenclatural issues are multidimensional, complex, and often nuanced. Over the past 137 years, our Society’s name has changed, the individual names and faces of the Society’s leadership and membership have also changed, but the collective mission remains the same: AOS is committed to advancing the scientific knowledge and conservation of birds. In support of our mission, we want to think carefully about what the future of ornithology looks like, and act on those thoughts with sincere intention. It’s up to us—all of us—to create this future. To this end, the NACC and AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee are working together to develop policies that will establish criteria when relevant to social reform, and promote engagement between the NACC and members of the AOS community at large. We at the AOS strive to mirror the diversity and inclusivity we observe in the natural world, and to which we all belong, in our policies, actions, and initiatives at all levels of our Society.

COMMENTS

  1. Delighted to see this response, and genuinely proud to be a member of the AOS today. Let’s move forward, together!

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