ONT-BHM-Birders-Parkinson

Many birds are named for enslavers, colonizers and white supremacists. That’s about to change

Black birdwatchers on the practice’s racist history, the move to rename North America’s feathered species and other changes needed to make birding inclusive

Last fall, the world of birdwatching was rocked by news a long time in the making: birds in North America will no longer be named after people. 

The American Ornithological Society — which maintains a list of official English-language names for birds — said the change is aimed at righting historical wrongs, and dissociating some feathered species from the racist and colonial legacies of the people whose names they bear. 

That includes the Townsend’s warbler found in coniferous forests on the West Coast, named after early 1800s naturalist John Kirk Townsend, who stole skulls from the graves of Indigenous people and whose work contributed to scientific racism used to justify slavery. The ornithological society is starting with a list of 70 to 80 birds, but will eventually change the English names of hundreds of species in the Americas, in consultation with the public. 

“Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today,” the organization’s executive director and CEO, Judith Scarl, said in a statement calling out “historic bias” in the way birds have been named until now.

“The time has come for us to transform this process and redirect the focus to the birds, where it belongs.”

Some of the avian species set to receive new titles might be familiar sights in backyards and around bird feeders in Canada. They include those with relatively-benign — if confusing — names, like the Steller’s jay, named after a German naturalist, the Anna’s hummingbird, named after a European royal and the Cooper’s hawk, named for an American who mainly studied mollusks. 

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Others carry darker legacies. Scott’s oriole was named after a Civil War general who oversaw the forced relocation of Indigenous people along the Trail of Tears. Audubon’s shearwater was named after enslaver John James Audubon, also the namesake of the National Audubon Society, a bird conservation group that describes him as a fabulist and fraudster who stole human remains and “did despicable things even by the standards of his day.” Many species were named after the first European or American man to kill and collect a specimen, a colonial practice that erased the contributions and knowledge of Black and Indigenous experts

Concerns about the history of racism in birding have existed for a long time. Likewise, renaming birds to fix historical wrongs is also nothing new. The long-tailed duck, a common sight on Canadian coastlines, received a new moniker in 2000, erasing an old one containing a racial slur. But for a long time, ornithologists took requests for renaming one at a time without looking at larger systemic change. 

The turning point came on May 25, 2020. The same day a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, a white woman named Amy Cooper, who once attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, called 911 from New York’s Central Park to lodge a false allegation against a Black birder named Christian Cooper. Both incidents prompted massive reckonings with racism in North America. The impacts reverberated in birding too, drawing attention to the ways Black birders often face unwarranted scrutiny and violence, and sparking calls for birdwatching to be made more inclusive. 

A grassroots group called Bird Names for Birds pressed the American Ornithological Society to change all eponyms, or names derived from people, to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to reform. By the end of the year, the society renamed what is now the thick-billed longspur, which got its former moniker from a Confederate general. It also decided to explore what a wider renaming process could look like — an effort to make birdwatching more diverse and welcoming.

Bird renaming: a tiny yellow and black warbler perched among glossy, wet leaves
A Townsend’s warbler, one of the North American species that’s now set to be renamed. Photo: Ryan Wilkes

Renaming is just the beginning of the changes that need to happen to make birdwatching inclusive and safe, Shontal Cargill, a birder based in the Greater Toronto Area, says. Spotting common woodpeckers and rare geese through her binoculars is joyful, but the practice has had hurtful moments too — times when she feared for her safety, or realized white birders on the trail were saying hello to each other but not her. 

“It’s almost like people don’t really take you seriously because you’re just a Black, young girl … and when you think of birding, you generally think of an older white male. Sometimes it’s very lonely,” she says. 

“It’s very tiring to constantly have to say, ‘Hey, my life matters. I’m worthy to be here in the field the same way that you are. I know what I’m talking about.’ ”

In their call for action, Bird Names for Birds noted the history of ornithology is “in many ways, a microcosm of the history and harms of western science.” That history can also show how birding can be a force for good. American abolitionist Harriet Tubman was an avid naturalist who learned to perfectly mimic the call of a barred owl, a signal she used along the Underground Railroad to covertly tell freedom seekers when it was safe to come out. Another agent of the Underground Railroad, Alexander Milton Ross of Belleville, Ont., posed as an ornithologist as he travelled through Confederate states to spread information to enslaved people about escape routes and safe houses.

So, how can the world of birding truly become safer and more inclusive? The Narwhal spoke to six Black birders about their experiences in the field, the renaming process and how else the community needs to change as it looks towards its future.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Zoë-Blue Coates, wearing binoculars, sits on a rock with water in the background
Zoë-Blue Coates says it’s worth questioning why birds are named after certain people: “It’s not because they actually had a relationship to the bird, or to the land that the bird was on.” Photo: Kayla Isomura

Zoë-Blue Coates

Compost Education Centre office manager and member of Special Bird Service | Victoria 

Introduction to birding: I think that birds have always been a thing in my life. I have a memory of my grandma giving me this bright, sky blue poster with birds on it and it had the names of them underneath. The first bird I learned how to ID was the American robin when I was a kid. In 2019, my grandparents and I went to Newfoundland and I got to see the puffins. We went to Cape St. Mary’s and it was the first time I ever saw a bird colony. I remember the smell of bird poop as I walked across this beautiful meadow, to this giant rock that’s just full of birds. And it was the most awe inspiring thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

I think the thing that got me really into backyard birds, which are my main focus now, was during COVID. A lot of people started running, and I live in an apartment where I can see the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood and watch crows dive bomb runners down the street. So to prevent myself from being dive bombed, I started feeding the crows and learning more about corvids.

Then COVID went into the heat dome, and I found myself having a lot of anxiety about the state of the world. Eventually I took a bird language interpretation course that actually is offered at my work, and it opened up my mind to how you can interact with birds and bees and plants. And I started walking to work and listening for the birds that I was hearing … It’s the most grounding thing ever. No matter where you are, you can usually hear a bird.

Bird renaming: an Anna's hummingbird with a bright pink-coloured head perches on a tiny tree branch
Anna’s hummingbird can commonly be found along the west coast. The species was named after a European royal but is now set to receive a new moniker. Photo: Ryan Wilkes

Thoughts on renaming eponymous birds: I had heard about it sort of being a thing in the birder gossip-sphere in 2021. It was like ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ Why are we naming things after people who are claiming to have seen them first or to have studied them first? The people who they’re named after … it’s not because they actually had a relationship to the bird, or to the land that the bird was on. I think that’s the thing that actually needs to be called into question if we’re really starting to untangle these systems and these things that are the root causes of things like climate change.

The thing that’s sort of disappointing about names is that oftentimes they are disconnected from the lands that they’re on. They’re disconnected from the relationships they have to people, to plants, to other beings. For example, Swainson’s thrush. The translation from SENĆOŦEN is salmonberry bird, because it calls out the colour of the salmonberry. So I think that there are actually ways that we could have a deeper relationship with the birds that we’re hearing. I think that maybe we’re just stopping at the midpoint with just saying we’re going to rename them. And then what does that consultation look like? Who are the communities renaming them? Is it just continuing to be higher learning institutions? And if so, is it actually undoing the harm that the names of these birds caused?

How birding still needs to change: I would really love to see birding be about more than just birds … I really wish that people saw the intricacy between the land and the birds, because that’s what’s really going to help when it comes to conservation.

A selfie of Julian Victor wearing a camoflauge shirt in the woods, with a large camera and tripod
Julian Victor says it’s important that efforts to diversify birding continue beyond renaming species: “You have to continue to do the work.” Photo: Supplied by Julian Victor

Julian Victor

Wildlife filmmaker, host of On the Wild Side on Breakfast Television | Toronto

Introduction to birding: About 10 years ago, I wanted to do wildlife filmmaking. I always had a passion for wildlife and animals, so then I wanted to go to school to be a zoologist. But that didn’t work because my grades weren’t the greatest, so then I went to school for film. I ended up working in a production house and my boss at the time was like, ‘There’s this weird place you should go check out,’ which was actually Tommy Thompson Park

I took my camera and on my weekends, I would go and check out the place. I fell in love with filming the birds around Tommy Thompson. Over the years, you start to learn about more species.

Birding gets you to be aware of your surroundings. You’re kind of looking for signs, like [bird] sounds. I could be walking with my friends and hear a red-tailed hawk, and I go ‘Oh, there’s a red-tailed hawk somewhere.’ I can tell the difference between a crow’s call and a raven. So many types of birds migrate into the city from the Caribbean and it’s great to see a lot of these really cool birds in such an urban setting. I love that feeling of knowing wildlife is all around and these birds are just all around us, even in the city. 

A very misunderstood bird that I actually like is the double-crested cormorant. Just like Black people, very misunderstood. People always act like cormorants are such dirty birds. They were persecuted and they actually used to be called n-word birds. They were seen as a nuisance. I find them to be very fascinating. In the sun, they’re black but they have an emerald colour and green eyes. They dive below the water and they can come up with fish and swallow three or four fish at a time.

Thoughts on renaming eponymous birds: When you look back at the time period when some of these birds were named, these were done during times of slavery or times when naturalists who were Black people or people of colour were excluded. Some of the people who named these birds could be linked to colonization and the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. So I think that can be very triggering to people and also very unwelcoming. I think it’s good that they’re naming them after the characteristics of the bird and their regional locations, I think that would be more inviting.

How birding still needs to change: How can you want to have everybody on board to save the diversity of species in the world when a diversity of people is not properly represented? I think in 2020 people were like, ‘We’re all about inclusivity.’ I guess at the time it was the thing to do, but you have to keep it going. Don’t get a token to say ‘Hey, we have this one.’ You have to continue to do the work, and continue to go to different neighborhoods with people of different backgrounds and talk to them about birding and about wildlife. 

Shontal Cargill holds binoculars in front of a marsh on a sunny day
Shontal Cargill says the renaming of eponymous birds is a welcome change, but it won’t make Black birders safer. “I don’t think it’s like the silver bullet that’s going to make birding more inclusive,” she says. Photo: Supplied by Shontal Cargill

Shontal Cargill

Birder and wildlife photographer | Brampton, Ont.

Introduction to birding: I had to take a science for non-science major class in my undergrad. There was actually an ornithology class that fell under that criteria. I took it just because I needed to cross off the requirement, but it was so fascinating to learn about birds.

I started going on hikes during the pandemic, like really long ones, and observing what was around. I think that was kind of my moment where I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna consider myself a birder now’ because I have some advanced knowledge … I’m observing birds, I’m recording what I’m seeing on various apps, I feel like I’m edging into birding territory here. 

I think the most special encounter I had in my early days of birding was at the Riverwood Conservancy. It was my first time seeing a downy woodpecker up close … I was just observing it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is so incredible.’ We have these birds right here in our backyard, and we’re just walking right by them every single day with no clue that they’re just out here doing their thing.

“Wow, imagine that something like a bird that just flies freely in the sky has this legacy through no fault of its own.”

Shontal Cargill

Thoughts on renaming eponymous birds: When Christian Cooper had that situation in New York, people started to really amplify that a lot of prominent birders were deeply problematic people. That’s when I became really aware of the fact that a lot of birds are named after people who were slave owners or people who held really racist views. To me it was shocking, first of all … but I also was just thinking to myself, ‘Wow, imagine that something like a bird that just flies freely in the sky has this legacy through no fault of its own.’ We impose the name on it because someone ‘discovered’ it.

When I heard that the names were going to be changed, I thought it was a welcome choice. I do think it’s important. I don’t think it’s like the silver bullet that’s going to make birding more inclusive, because there are a lot of other issues within the birding community that I’ve personally experienced and witnessed. 

How birding still needs to change: I don’t think a lot of people understand that when you’re a Black person it comes with — I don’t know how to phrase this in a way that doesn’t sound horrible — but it just comes with a lot of extra things that maybe people who aren’t Black don’t realize. [Recently] there was a very rare goose in North Caledon. So I went there. It was in a rural area and there were just a few houses here and there, spread out. Immediately when I pulled up I felt unsafe, just because I know it’s very easy for me as a Black person with binoculars and a very large camera to look suspicious.

[And then I learned that] a few days earlier, the police had been called on two white men who were birdwatching with their binoculars and their camera. So I’m thinking ‘Wow, if someone would call the police on them, imagine what could have happened if someone saw me and thought, “Hey, I don’t think this person belongs here.” ’ It could have ended pretty badly.

When I tell my friends and family that I’m a birder, they’re like, ‘Isn’t that like a white people thing?’ The ultimate goal would be to dispel the myth that going outside, observing birds …  is exclusive to a certain group of people.

Melissa Hafting smiles at the camera with a pair of binoculars in her hands and a blurred background
Melissa Hafting says renaming birds is a good move for the sake of inclusivity, but also for learning to recognize different species. “Cooper’s hawk doesn’t tell you what the bird looks like,” she says. “But if you named it something like dark capped-hawk, that would help.” Photo: Ian Harland

Melissa Hafting

eBird reviewer, B.C. Young Birders Program founder and B.C. Rare Bird Alert blogger | Vancouver

Introduction to birding: I got into birding when I was about five years old. My dad would take me to a place called Reifel Bird Sanctuary … he really started the love of birds and wildlife and nature in me, and then it just grew from there. 

I love being outside in nature, camping, just looking at wildlife. It just brought me a sense of peace looking at the birds from a young age. Especially as I grew up and had a lot of problems, like losing my father and then my mother … they’ve really been a saviour to me. I have a book coming out in spring 2024, called Dare to Bird, exploring the joy and healing power of birds. This book is about how birds have helped me through grief and loss … It also talks about the joy that birds have brought me and how they can help people. 

Thoughts on renaming eponymous birds: In general I think [renaming eponymous birds] is a good move … It will help birders kind of learn what the bird is by the description, which will be a lot more helpful for us. [The name] Cooper’s hawk doesn’t tell you what the bird looks like. But if you named it something like dark capped-hawk, that would help. 

Bird renaming: a dark brown-streaked hawk tears into a rodent while perched on a tree branch
Cooper’s hawks can often be found living in cities and suburbs, where they prey on pigeons. Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew named the species after a friend of his, a naturalist who mainly studied mollusk shells but killed and collected a specimen of the hawk. The species will now be renamed. Photo: Ryan Wilkes

There’s a lot of opposition already to it … because nobody really likes change. I do understand why some people find these changes to be hard, especially because they don’t feel that you should be judging historical figures. 

How birding still needs to change: I’ve talked to other birders of colour who feel like this isn’t going to make any difference for them regarding some of the racist things they’ve had [happen]. I can understand that, too, because I don’t believe it’s going to make a huge difference regarding [whether we] will feel safer in the wild. Will people make us feel more included? Will we not have some of the racist things that have happened to us? No, I don’t believe that’s going to happen from just the name-change alone. But if you can do anything to make people feel more welcome, you should. 

I think you need to do a lot more. Like having people of colour on boards and bird record committees, having diversity and inclusion statements, doing more [walks for Black, Indigenous and other people of colour] and having [people of colour] in more leadership positions, acknowledging that there is a problem in birding — and that there are barriers to people of colour, and that they don’t always feel welcome. 

Cynthia Roulston in winter gear and surrounded by snow, looking through binoculars. Beside her is a dog with a stick in its mouth
“As a Black woman who grew up in rural Ontario, I was not represented at all in the outdoor and environmental world,” educator Cynthia Roulston says. “I think that language matters. Names [can carry] a colonial perspective — that ownership.” Photo: Supplied by Cynthia Roulston

Cynthia Roulston

Middle school teacher and birder | Scarborough, Ont. 

Introduction to birding: When I became a teacher … [and] it was time to pick where you wanted to do your practicum, I saw the Natural Science School [on the Toronto Islands] and in my head I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone is going to jump up and run for that location’ … And then in the end I was one of maybe three people who wanted to go.

I would take the 6 a.m. ferry over … I would go off with another teacher who was my mentor and we would go birding. Even after my practicum finished, we would meet up to go birding in different parts of the city. 

I had a bit of a hiatus … and then during the pandemic it was a great thing to start up again. Just as a very random online science project that I would show to my students, I started setting up some feeders in my backyard … Once we came back from the pandemic, I had that eye of looking for things, so I noticed how many species of birds were on our school property that I’d never really paid attention to. 

Bird renaming: a V-shaped formation of Ross's geese, seen from below against a cloudless sky
Ross’s geese migrate through central Canada on their way to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. The species was named after a mid-19th century clerk at the Hudson’s Bay Company who collected a specimen of the goose. Photo: Ryan Wilkes

Thoughts on renaming eponymous birds: I think it’s a positive thing. I’m really happy with it. As a Black woman who grew up in rural Ontario, I was not represented at all in the outdoor and environmental world … I think that language matters. Names [can carry] a colonial perspective — that ownership. I see it in education circles as well, there’s a real wanting to covet knowledge and take credit for knowledge.

Going back to a renaming that focuses more on their unique characteristics and features more descriptive names — fantastic, who wouldn’t want that? Where there’s a chance to do less harm, why not do less harm? What makes me sad is the people who mock that. You can just tell the level of privilege because they don’t understand, or even are unwilling to understand how that might work for someone else. 

There’s still a lot of decolonizing and anti-racist work that needs to be done. I feel like this is a start … Hopefully, this is going to spark those conversations and then maybe, slowly, start moving some people into recognizing there are other voices out there that need to be heard in the environmental world, the birding world and in education. 

Charlies Plaisir stands by water with a large camera lens pointed to the left
“I think it’s an important action to take to show that our rapport with animals should not be us dominating them or us being in a position of power towards them by giving our name to them,” Charles Plaisir says about renaming eponymous birds. Photo: Solange Barrault

Charles Plaisir

Science communicator and nature photographer | Sherbrooke, Que.

Introduction to birding: Birding was something I was always interested in from a young age. Not in a very scientific way, but more [that] I love looking at the different colors of flying things. As a child, I was really interested in birds of prey … [like the] bald eagle, of course. Which I had never seen, I just saw a picture of it. And then I started looking in my backyard and started seeing all of the colourful birds that we have, even here in eastern Canada. Blue jays, cardinals, different birds with amazing feather patterns that I had never really thought of.

I got my first camera [as a teenager] and I started realizing that you can get some really nice pictures of these birds in your backyard or in different places. 

My best experience overall must have been Oceania, so New Zealand and Australia. I was able to work in an eco-sanctuary where birds that are typically endangered or threatened were able to flourish and to be protected. Australia was amazing for a whole bunch of other reasons: bigger birds and these flocks of cockatoos, like hundreds of them, flying over your head while you’re doing your fieldwork … it makes me appreciate the diversity we have here as well.

Bird renaming: two Clark's nutrackers face to face, beaks open, on a railing next to water
Clark’s nutcracker was named after William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which laid the foundation for colonialism in western North America. The honourific will now be changed. Photo: Ryan Wilkes

Thoughts on renaming eponymous birds: I didn’t have any opinion at first. And then I realized, wait a second, this is more than just renaming birds. It’s not only about increased inclusion for humans and our perspective towards each other — of course that action will not affect the bird in any way.  I think it’s an important action to take to show that our rapport with animals should not be us dominating them or us being in a position of power towards them by giving our name to them. It just has a colonial aspect to it. We should be distinguishing animals by biology, its physical features, its behaviour. 

Showing respect for the living world starts with how you describe it, how you define it. I think leaving our ego and ourselves out of it is important to the process. In sum, I think it’s really a positive thing. It doesn’t mean much for the animal itself, but it might mean a lot in the long run in terms of how we interact with living species.

Updated Feb. 12, 2024, at 11:30 a.m. ET: This story was updated to correct the credit on the photo of Melissa Hafting.

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In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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