This column is not about a bird sighting. The thick-billed longspur made news for an entirely different reason, now that the name-change movement has reached the bird world. McCown’s longspur has become “thick-billed longspur” instead. This results in a name that employs two physical features, face and feet. The longspur is a reference to the bird’s extended hind toe.
The American Ornithological Union changed the name.
The bird formerly known as McCown’s longspur was named for a military man, John Porter McCown, who was stationed in western Texas in 1851. He was an amateur birdman, and from his own account he seems to have been a rather casual one at that.
“I fired at a flock of shore larks and found this bird among the killed,” he wrote.
McCown sent the specimens to George N. Lawrence, who published a description of the birds (there were two, as it happened) and named the new species for McCown.
The shore larks he referred to are now called horned larks.
The trouble is, McCown left the U.S. Army to fight for the confederacy during the Civil War. The warbler named for him has joined a lengthening list of names that have been changed. The list now includes U.S. presidents and Union officers. This week, the Fargo School Board voted to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name from a school, and activists in Bismarck have ramped up their efforts to have Custer Park renamed. The current name commemorates George Armstrong Custer, Indian fighter and senior officer present at Little Bighorn in present day Montana, where he and his immediate command were all killed.
The longspurs could have been witnesses. The thick-billed warbler inhabits wide open, dry shortgrass prairie, the kind of habitat that once covered much of the Northern Plains from Wyoming and South Dakota to southwestern Alberta. This put Montana at the heart of its range and North Dakota at the eastern periphery.
There are century-old records of the longspur at Pembina in the Red River Valley, and the bird was reported to be abundant in western North Dakota. George Bird Grinnell, a pioneer ethnographer and keen observer of nature, found the longspur nesting near Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Missouri River Valley south of Bismarck – the post from which Custer ventured west. As recently as the 1960s, Robert and Ann Gammell, founders of the American Birding Association and hosts of its first national convention, banded longspurs near Kenmare, in northwestern North Dakota.
Today’s consensus is that the longspur has disappeared from North Dakota. I looked hard for it on the ranch that Suezette and I owned near Blaisdell, which is straight south of Kenmare, more or less. I also watched for longspurs on hiking trips in the Badlands and birding excursions at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, all potential places to find the bird, but I have never seen the species in North Dakota.
I did spot thick-billed longspurs – still denoted by the older name – in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. The southern boundary of the park is the international border. I have also seen the bird at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Montana, and at Bowdoin NWR a bit farther west and during onshore hikes during canoeing trips on the Upper Missouri River. This is also good country for longspurs.
Meriwether Lewis may have missed a chance to describe this bird, thus saving us the trouble of renaming it today. Lewis described a “small bird … about the size of a large sparrow of a dark brown color with some white feathers in the tail …” He goes on to describe aerial displays during which “the bird sings very sweetly …” These sketchy details were enough to convince Eliot Coues, who edited the Lewis and Clark journals, that Lewis had seen the longspurs, but the contemporary consensus is that Lewis’s report “lacks the precise detail necessary for positive identification,” an opinion rendered by Herbert Krause, who contributed the report on McCown’s longspur to Arthur Cleveland Bent’s “Life Histories of North American Birds.”
I’ve taken much of the detail in my account from Bent. I first learned of the name change from an article by Jim Williams in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He called the change “Cancel culture in Action!” The exclamation point is his. Thanks to Jim Brosseau of Grand Forks for calling Wilson’s report to my attention.
Krause quotes Robert Stewart, whose book, “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” was published in 1975, as doubting that any of these longspurs still nested in the state.
In “Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds,” Saskatchewan birder Trevor Herriot wrote passionately about the longspurs. During the 1990s, he said, “The species range retracted rapidly back to the southwest, where small colonies remain on heavily grazed and naturally barren prairie. Although continuous cropping practices have been blamed … it may also have been a case of a species breeding in sink habitat for many years and the last remnant populations crashing as they exported their few surviving young to breed near the center of their range.”
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.