Racism hides in the names given to plants and animals. It’s starting to change

With its lemon and black plumage, Scott’s oriole shines like a flame in the desert. But the name of the bird carries a violent history that Stephen Hampton cannot forget. He used to see the orioles often, living in California. Now that he lives out of the bird’s reach, “I’m a little relieved,” he says.

Hampton is an ornithologist and a registered citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Winfield Scott, an American military commander and namesake of the bird, drove Hampton’s ancestors and other Native Americans from their land in the 1800s on a series of forced marches now known as the Trail of Tears. The trip killed more than 4,000 Cherokee, displacing up to 100,000 people at the end.

“Much of the Trail of Tears is already obliterated,” says Hampton. “There are a few historical sites, but you would have to be an archaeologist to find out where the real palisades were.” Tying Scott’s heritage to a bird “only adds to the erasure by putting another layer on top of it.”

The oriole is just one of dozens of species that scientists are considering renaming due to racist or offensive connotations. In a wave of revision, scientists are wrestling with this legacy.

Racist relics can infuse scientific and common names. But unlike scientific names — which are internationally standardized in Latin — common names live in the vernacular. They vary by language and region, and have a smaller scope than the international scope of scientific names, which arguably makes them easier to modify. Some are immortalized in field guides and officially recognized by learned societies. These common names provide useful shared language for scientists and the public, but they can also enshrine harmful legacies. Advocates of change see some names as barriers to inclusion and distractions from the organizations themselves. But these defenders also see opportunities in the name change.

“We can choose language that reflects our shared values,” says Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and president-elect of the Entomological Society of America, or ESA. The name changes themselves aren’t new; scientific and common names change as scientists learn more about a species. The ESA maintains a list of English common names for insects, updated annually.

In July, the ESA removed the derogatory term “gypsy”, which many consider an insult to Roma, from its list of common names for two insects, the moth. Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides. ESA invited the public to suggest new names. In the meantime, the insects will bear their internationally recognized scientific names.

the butterfly Lymantria dispar, which has a large bushy antennae, looking directly at the camera
The Entomological Society of America seeks public comment on a new common name for the moth Lymantria dispar. In July, the company retired the name “squishy,” which contained a pejorative for Roma.Heather Broccard-Bell/E+/Getty Images

“This is a moral change, needed and long overdue,” says Margareta Matache, Roma rights activist and researcher at Harvard University. It’s a “small but historic” step to rectify portrayals where “Roma have been stripped of humanity or portrayed as less than human”, she says.

With the Better Common Names Project, the ESA now bans names that perpetuate negative stereotypes and welcomes public comment on which names to change next. So far over 80 insensitive names have been identified and over 100 name ideas for L.dispar were aired, Ware says. With an “upward swelling of names” to choose from, “everyone is included,” she says.

But racist legacies lurk in jargon. Certain scorpions, birds, fish and flowers are known by the label Hottentot, a term of abuse for the indigenous Khoikhoi people in southern Africa. The Digger Pine carries a pejorative for the Paiute people in the western United States, once derisively called diggers by white settlers.

The world of birds, in particular, has relied on such legacies. Birds named after people proliferated in 19th century ornithology, glorifying the names themselves or the characters they favoured. Today, 142 North American bird names endure as verbal landmarks for people. Some names – like Scott’s oriole, chosen by American naturalist and military officer Darius Nash Couch – praise people who participated in the genocide. Others – like Bachman’s Sparrow, named after Lutheran minister and naturalist John Bachman – revere people who defended slavery. “Blacks and Native Americans would always have been opposed to those names,” Hampton says.

Since 2020, supporters of the field campaign Bird names for birds advocated a solution – replacing all eponymous bird names with descriptive names. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution” to removing barriers to birdwatching for minority communities, says Robert Driver, an evolutionary biologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. But it’s a gesture of “consideration for anyone out there with binoculars.”

The American Ornithological Society initially rejected Driver’s proposal to revise the name of a brownish-gray bird called McCown’s sparrow, after Confederate General John P. McCown. But after the 2020 killing of George Floyd sparked a national reflection on systemic racism and some Confederate monuments were removed and sports teams with offensive epithets were renamed, the ornithological society changed its policies to consider a namesake’s role in “reprehensible events” as grounds for review. . Today, the bird is known as the thick-billed sparrow.

Driver wants Scott’s oriole to be next – but for now English bird name changes have been halted while a committee with the company recommends a new name change process. “We are committed to changing these harmful and proprietary names,” says Mike Webster, an ornithologist at Cornell University and president of the society.

Removing harmful terms provides long-term stability in common names, Ware says. With thoughtful criteria, scientists and others can create names that are built to last. “So it might be uncomfortable now,” Ware says. “But I hope it only happens once.”

As for Hampton, he no longer sees Scott’s oriole now that he lives in Washington State. But he still can’t escape these types of names. Sometimes, while birdwatching, he sees Townsend’s solitaire – a bird that loves juniper berries. It is named after American naturalist John Kirk Townsend, who collected Native skulls in the 1830s for cranial measurements used to substantiate pseudoscientific racial hierarchies. “Every time I see one [of the birds], I think, ‘It should be Juniper Solitaire,'” Hampton says. In his mind, Scott’s oriole is the yucca oriole. “I can’t wait for those to be changed.”