BYLINE: Jodi Heckel, arts and humanities editor, University of Illinois News Bureau

The American Ornithological Society recently announced that it will change all English language common names of birds that honor people, to avoid recognizing historical figures with ties to slavery, racism, and colonialism. Historian David Sepkoski, who studies the history of biological and environmental sciences in the context of broader culture, answers a few questions about the change in the naming convention for birds.

Q. The American Ornithological Society’s naming change will include birds named for naturalist John James Audubon, the famous bird illustrator who also was a slaveowner, while the National Audubon Society voted earlier this year to keep its association with Audubon in its name. What is your perspective on the tension between not honoring someone with racist views versus recognizing their contributions to bird conservation?

A. This is a tricky question that seems to be coming up more and more. Over the last several years in the U.S., we’ve seen renaming efforts targeting buildings, cultural institutions, prizes and awards that honor scientists or scholars whose names are associated with racism or bias. While some vocal critics consider this an example of “cancel culture” run amok, there are really good historical and social reasons for reconsidering how we honor or remember specific historical figures.

In the case of Audubon, consider the following: He owned enslaved Africans through the 1830s and sold these human beings to finance his “great work” – the compendium of North American birds he is mostly remembered for. This is not a trivial misdemeanor or a sign of “different times.” By the 1830s, there was a well-established abolitionist movement in Britain and the U.S. In fact, Britain (the country to which Audubon emigrated prior to publishing his famous “Ornithological Biography”) abolished slavery in 1833.

What really matters here is acknowledging the perspectives of all stakeholders involved. Sure, birdwatchers love Audubon’s illustrations and venerate his contributions. But why is the desire not to have complicated feelings about a hero more important than acknowledging the actual violence and injustice visited on millions of enslaved Africans and Indigenous people? I think the Audubon Society needs to change its name – or explain why it cares more about white sensibilities than the painful experiences of Black people. Do we love birds more than human beings?

Q. This change is happening while U.S. Army bases and university buildings are being renamed, and statues of Confederate leaders are being removed. How will such changes affect how the oppressive parts of our history are discussed?

A. I dearly hope that this will open a dialogue that will be based less on “naming and shaming” than acknowledging history. When I taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington early in my career, the town I lived in was festooned with Confederate statues. My own history department proudly presented an annual undergraduate scholarship sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It felt as if slavery, the Civil War and massive white resistance to Reconstruction simply never happened.

This was the mid-2000s and look how things have changed! I am very encouraged by how progressives, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 1619 Project have forced real reckoning with our nation’s history. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge racism, slavery, and oppression in the past. We have to understand how the past creates the present. That’s the lesson of history, and it’s probably the most vital one.

Q. In its announcement on bird names, the American Ornithological Society said that a derogatory name “detracts from the focus, appreciation, or consideration of the birds themselves.” What would be the impact of leaving these names in place, whether for a bird or a building?

A. Most people won’t know who the person is whom most birds are named after. But the AOS is taking a much more proactive stance. It is insisting that we scrutinize those names and acknowledge a history that has been largely overlooked. So while it might inconvenience bird-watchers to have to update their nomenclature, the return is that it will require them to reflect on our nation’s shameful history of violent oppression. 

That feels like a good trade-off to me. To allow names to remain in place – whether for birds or buildings – is a pretty clear statement to people who have been marginalized and oppressed that their perspectives don’t matter.

Q. In examining who has been honored through the naming of bird species or buildings, what can we learn about how history records the accomplishments of non-white people or women?

A. Sadly, much of this revision does very little to honor or recover the lives of people who were marginalized when they lived. Acknowledging the difficult legacies of famous Americans is an important first step, but it means nothing if we don’t do the hard work of recovering the histories and contributions of Black and enslaved people, women and Indigenous people who were largely written out of the historical record. 

History departments, like ours at the University of Illinois, can make a real difference by prioritizing scholarship and teaching by faculty whose work offers new perspectives on those people who have been excluded from the historical record. Many of the great naturalists of the 19th century, including Charles Darwin, benefitted from the knowledge and skill of non-white and Indigenous guides and assistants. We may never recover all of their histories, but we can acknowledge that they existed, and we can do more in the present to work to redress the harms that continue to be felt by marginalized communities today.


David Sepkoski is the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in History of Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the author of “Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity.”