Some 150 birds named after people tied to slavery and white supremacy would eventually get new names as part of an ongoing reckoning with racism within the world of birdwatching. So is Jameson’s firefinch, named after a British naturalist who bought a young girl while in Africa “as a joke” and then took pictures of her being brutally murdered. In a new story this week, Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears outlines the gruesome history of ornithology that has been wiped out in many history books.
Fears also writes about the names these birds already had, given to them by indigenous peoples who understood the animals long before white settlers supposedly “discovered” the creatures. There is now an urge to return to some of those names or use new ones in local languages, which are still mocked by a cadre of the bird elite who are still largely white. Last year the American Ornithological Society apologized for “inappropriate comments” members have made almost 10 years ago on a proposal to rename the Maui parrot beak to the Hawaiian name Kiwikiu.
I can’t do justice to Fears’ coverage here; you will have to read it yourself. But I can tell you that while the movement to end systemic racism within environmental science and conservation has gained momentum, it’s far from new — and there’s still a long way to go.
The Audubon Society, the leading non-profit bird conservation organization in the US, is still named after a man who enslaved black people and criticized the emancipation of enslaved people in the Caribbean. In April, the CEO of the Audubon Society, David Yarnold, said, resigned after employees came forward with their experiences with racism and sexism.
“Environmental organizations cannot operate with impunity… For too long, boards have looked the other way because executives have ignored or directly perpetuated racism,” Andrés Jimenez, executive director of nonprofit Green 2.0, said in a statement. a statement that responds to the leadership shake. The Jimenez organization publishes a report every year tracking diversity within environmental organizations and foundations since 2017. report found a slight bump in the average number of people of color and women on staff. It was a sign of some progress – but nowhere near a full reckoning with the legacy of racism and discrimination against black, indigenous and other people of color within science and environmentalism.
Fears’ recent reporting follows black birdwatchers and ornithologists as they make their way into spaces that have often pushed people of color to the fringes. It tells the story of Corina Newsome, one of the original organizers of Black Birders Week that began last year after a now infamous episode of a white woman calling the police for a Black Birder in New York’s Central Park. (It’s Black Birders Week again this week.)
“When you often think of black people in nature, many people associate that with a threat — that black people cannot exist in nature without being threatened,” Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, another organizer of the first Black Birders Week, told The edge last year. “So this idea that black people thrive in nature — they embrace nature, they’re incredibly happy and excited to show the natural world to the rest of us — is a perspective that we desperately need.”
Still navigating the bird world while Black is loaded, writes Fears. Newsome, an ornithologist and community engagement manager for Georgia Audubon, tells Fears about the stereotypes she faces in the field. And she’s candid about what it feels like to work under the name ‘Audubon’.
But if a new, more diverse generation of birdwatchers succeeds in renaming both birds and settings, many titles could eventually change — including several birds named after John James Audubon. Take a look at Fears full story: It shows how much is in a name.