The Portland Audubon Society made waves recently with the announcement of its official decision to drop the ubiquitous “Audubon” name. Portland’s name change comes during a cultural moment wherein a number of Audubon organizations are reexamining their ties with the eponymous John James Audubon. Audubon societies around the country, including the organization formerly known as “Audubon for All” have begun the process of renaming. Audubon for All has become the “Bird Union.” In each of these cases, the history of Audubon as an individual was weighed against the recognizable Audubon name which has become synonymous with avian science, conservation, wildlife appreciation, and community-building.
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While many individual Audubon-affiliated groups are making their own decisions regarding the Audubon name, the National Audubon Society has announced its decision, in a recent open letter from the Audubon CEO, to keep the Audubon name. According to Dr. Elizabeth Gray:
“Today, Audubon is committed to uniting people from all walks of life who share a love of birds and a commitment to protecting their environments. As we move forward, we will build on the exceptional accomplishments in conservation that this organization has made since its founding by bringing together communities across the Americas to protect birds and the places they need.”
Like other Audubon organizations which have chosen to keep the Audubon name, the National Audubon Society voiced concerns over the impact that a name change would have on the important conservation work that the organization does. The Audubon name was chosen more than fifty years after the death of John James Audubon and has come to represent much more than his individual contributions to ornithology or his personal legacy.
Most people consider the Audubon name to be synonymous with birds and the communities which form around those who share an interest in birds. The degree to which John James Audubon should factor into these communities is the debate at the heart of this name change movement.
John James Audubon was born on a plantation. He was a slave owner. He opposed abolition and wrote favorably about slavery. Further complications to his legacy include claims of plagiarism or fraud, as well as a disturbing incident wherein Audubon collected skull specimens from Native American gravesites.
These events certainly influence our understanding of John James Audubon as an individual. For the organizations that share his name, though, almost 120 years of ornithology and conservation must be weighed against his antiquated actions and views. Even as the National Audubon Society has decided to move forward under its original name, several other Audubon groups must find ways to move forward without it.