John James Audubon was a wildlife artist who is famous for painting America’s birds as well as being a major player in the emergence of naturalism in the nineteenth century. Audubon has become akin to a folk hero, especially amongst birders, and is often imagined as a sort of bird-watching pilgrim, traveling the country, observing its wildlife, and then rendering beautiful life-like paintings which continue to be enjoyed to this day. Audubon’s association with birds is absolute. Today, many more people likely recognize his name as the namesake of the Audubon Society, a United States bird conservation group populated by dedicated birdwatchers and with chapters all over the country.
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The ubiquitous Audubon society does a lot of good under this name. The society is responsible for a range of conservation-focused activities as well as education and community-building. “Citizen science” has been a popular buzzword lately, but Audubon members and fans are no strangers to the concept, which has always been a major facet of the birdwatching hobby.
So why is it that several Audubon-affiliated organizations have rejected John James Audubon and his surname in recent months? Beginning with the Seattle chapter, Audubon societies around the country, including the organization formerly known as “Audubon for All” have begun the process of renaming. In most cases, a new name has yet to be chosen. Audubon for All has become the “Bird Union.” Most recently, the Portland chapter has announced its intent to drop the Audubon name.
In each case, the motive for the change lies in the less well-known aspects of John James Audubon’s history. Audubon was a slave-owner. He was born on his father’s plantation in 1785, and died in 1851, over a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Audubon was vocally opposed to abolition. He has also been accused of academic dishonesty with regards to an unverified species of eagle, “Falco Washingtonii,” which Audubon claimed to have discovered. The intent and extent of the dishonesty in question is a hotly debated topic. Other complaints exist against Audubon, including a morbid incident in which Audubon writes about collecting skulls from Native American gravesites for study.
These startling blemishes on the personal history of John James Audubon have been the major catalyst for Audubon Society name changes throughout the country. As birdwatching experiences a post-pandemic period of growth and interest amongst the wider population, many feel that continuing to hold onto the Audubon name is bound to lead to feelings of exclusion.
There is, however, a contingent of birders who consider the Audubon name to be larger than John James Audubon’s personal history. For those in this camp, the name change raises concerns. The Audubon name is widely recognized and is used for education and outreach throughout the country. Obscuring that could hurt the mission of the Audubon Society, a mission which is much larger and greater than its namesake.
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