Washington Post reporter troubled by 'racist legacy' of some birds

National Audubon Society also problematic because namesake was slave owner, newspaper says

According to The Washington Post, it's hunting season for cancel culture and its latest targets are "racist" birds. 

The Post ran an expansive report on Thursday, titled "The racist legacy many birds carry," focused on the "birding community," which apparently is having a difficult debate "about the names of species connected to enslavers, supremacists and grave robbers."

"Corina Newsome is a Black ornithologist, as rare as some of the birds she studies," Post environmental justice reporter Darryl Fears began his piece, noting she was hired to "break down barriers" at the Georgia Audubon nature preserve. 

"But overcoming those barriers will be daunting. As with the wider field of conservation, racism and colonialism are in ornithology’s DNA, indelibly linked to its origin story. The challenge of how to move forward is roiling White ornithologists as they debate whether to change as many as 150 eponyms, names of birds that honor people with connections to slavery and supremacy."

Fears wrote that birds such as Bachman’s sparrow and Wallace’s fruit dove "bear the names of men who fought for the Southern cause, stole skulls from Indian graves for pseudoscientific studies that were later debunked, and bought and sold Black people."


Six different species of birds are named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who "frequently used the n-word" in his writings, The Post reported. And three birds are named after James Sligo Jameson, another British naturalist who was "involved in a heinous act committed against a young girl he purchased as ‘a joke’" and "drew sketches of the child being stabbed and dismembered."

"Conservation has been driven by white patriarchy, this whole idea of calling something a wilderness after you move people off it or exterminate them and that you get to take ownership," Black ornithologist J. Drew Lanham told the newspaper.

"They are a reminder that this field that I work in was primarily developed and shaped by people not like me, who probably would have viewed me as lesser," Asian American ornithologist Olivia Wang similarly expressed. "They are also a reminder of how Western ornithology, and natural exploration in general, was often tied to a colonialist mind-set of conquering and exploiting and claiming ownership of things rather than learning from the humans who were already part of the ecosystem and had been living alongside these birds for lifetimes."


The report points out that the National Audubon Society itself is problematic since it is named after famed ornithologist John James Audubon, a slave owner who has been dead for 170 years. 

"I am deeply troubled by the racist actions of John James Audubon and recognize how painful that legacy is for Black, Indigenous and people of color who are part of our staff, volunteers, donors and members," Elizabeth Gray of the National Audubon Society told The Post. "Although we have begun to address this part of our history, we have a lot more to unpack."

Newsome was troubled when she first wore a work shirt that featured Audubon's name, Fears writing that her "pain is real." 

"I felt like I was wearing the name of an oppressor, the name of someone who enslaved my ancestors, Newsome said. "I believe they should both absolutely change the name. It feels wrong to enter African American communities … celebrating [Audubon’s] name. It’s a reality I am wrestling with constantly."


While efforts to rename such birds and the National Audubon Society had faced resistance, there was apparently a paradigm shift following the viral Central Park incident in 2020, when a White woman called 911 on a Black birdwatcher she dubiously accused of threatening her and her dog. 

"Within days of the incident in Central Park last year, Newsome helped organize a very public declaration dubbed Black Birders Week — an event that quickly became a viral movement," Fears reported. "By happenstance, it took place amid nationwide demonstrations and calls for racial justice following George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer."