The New York City chapter of the Audubon Society is making a significant change, confronting the white supremacist legacy of its namesake by choosing a new name.
Last March, New York City Audubon board of directors voted to change its name citing “Audubon” is a barrier to inclusivity in birding and conservation. They’re inviting everyone in NYC, whether they’re a member or not, to help pick a better name for the chapter.
“We want to choose something that’s authentic to us, to New York and to New Yorkers, and to New York birds, and that’s an important consideration that we’re eager for your input on,” said NYC Audubon Executive Director Jessica Wilson at NYC Audubon’s monthly membership meeting on Jan. 23.
The local chapter of the national nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats, is winding down its process to choose one out of 250 suggestions it collected over months. (Don’t worry; “Tweet” and other Twitter relics didn’t make it into the top five.) Here’s what you need to know about the how, what and why it matters.
Shifting Skies: Why NYC’s Audubon Society is moving past its legacy
When first explaining its decision, the chapter cited the founder and famous naturalist John James Audubon’s harmful views and actions towards people of color.
“He had a much darker legacy,” Wilson told Epicenter. “He was an accomplished artist for sure. But he also had a really troubling history …as a white supremacist who unearthed the graves of Black and Indigenous people in order to measure their skulls and create a scientific argument for white supremacy,” she says. Audubon was an enslaver and a vocal critic of abolition, Wilson added.
Not only that, Audubon also failed to credit the Black and Indigenous people who often offered information about birds Audubon would include in his writings.
There’s this, too: according to historians, he was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain, and despite him being an enslaver, researchers say his mother might have been an enslaved woman. Yet Audubon also pushed racist beliefs in his fiction, like one story included in his 3,000-page book “Ornithological Biography.” In it, Audubon depicts himself as the protagonist in a stand-off with an armed Black man and as the white savior who delivers the Black man and his family back to “happy” times with their enslaver. The piece also advocated for enslavers’ property rights.
Audubon’s past started emerging about a decade ago, according to Wilson. But she says the Black Lives Matter movement, the starkness of pandemic-era inequalities, and the murder of George Floyd drove it front and center.
The last chapter of “Autobahn”
In 2022, the chapter started “thinking about whether the name Audubon helped or hurt our work in conservation science in engaging communities we haven’t worked with before in advocating for protecting birds,” Wilson said.
For the next eight months, chapter staffers did a lot of listening — to fellow staff, partner organizations, members, funders and other birders across the city, and to their army of about 2,000 volunteers who track data on birds and habitats.
They asked questions like: What does the name Audubon make you think of? Does Audubon feel welcoming to you? Is that a group that you’d like to be a part of? Have you heard of Audubon?
More and more, they heard — and not just from Black communities and other people of color — that the name was a barrier to getting people involved. But it wasn’t only for the reason they imagined.
“Interestingly, for me especially, the name was not as recognizable as I thought it was,” Wilson said. “As a white woman over the age of 40, I knew Audubon meant birds; as a kid bird- watching, I knew if I went to an Audubon center, I would find birds.”
She and others learned that, for a younger generation, that wasn’t the case. Many didn’t know what “Audubon” stood for. Some thought it was a kind of bird.
“We often got the joke that Audubon is a highway in Germany, because it sounds like the Autobahn,” Wilson said.
While NYC Audubon lacks demographic data on active members and program participants, it plans to start tracking factors like race, ethnicity, gender, age and language, Wilson said. The hope is to increase diversity in the chapter, which still has “largely a white Manhattan-based audience.” The recent start of new public programs throughout the city has started to make a dent in diversity in the past few years, she said.
A birds’ eye view of the Audubon name change
NYC Audubon is not the only chapter to change its name. Its main source of inspiration was Audubon Society partners across the country, starting with the one in Seattle. In 2022, it became the first large chapter to publicly break from “Audubon.” Its peers in Washington, D.C., Georgia, and other states have since followed suit even as the National Audubon Society’s board of directors voted to keep the name.
The Audubon name changes are part of a larger trend in science and conservation organizations that are choosing more inclusive names for their groups, projects and even for species, Wilson says. One example: the American Ornithological Society’s decision to change the names of birds named after people. Broader debates about species like a bug named Hitler and a moth named Trump have also recently escalated.
But changes in these spaces have been slow. Meanwhile, among Audubon Society chapters, boards have moved ahead with new names. The Seattle chapter is now Birds Connect Seattle — similar to one of the five names community members can rank-vote for NYC Audubon through February:
- Birds Connect NYC
- Birds for All NYC (or NYC Birds for All)
- Birds NYC (or NYC Birds)
- NYC Bird Alliance
- NYC Bird Conservancy
Some might consider the names rather basic for a choice that’s taking a stance against a racist legacy. Critiques of Birds Connect Seattle, after all, include stingers calling it a Tinder for birds. And Claire Catania, executive director of the Seattle chapter, said she is trying not to have her “feelings hurt” that “Birds Connect” hasn’t been adopted by other chapters yet. “I love that it says something about who we are and what we do and our mission, and isn’t just crossing out ‘Audubon,’ ” she added.
Ultimately, a name is only as good as the work that gives it meaning, she told Epicenter.
What’s in a name?
At the meeting on Jan. 23, talk of the name change was met with pressing questions reminiscent of those asked earlier in the process:
- Do we expect to lose members or donors as a result of the name change?
“In the short term, we may lose support from a few past supporters who were not happy about the name change,” said Vivek Sriram, a chapter board member who’s on the finance committee. “But on balance, we believe that over time we will end up with a larger base of supporters to involve in our work and to move forward successfully.”
Since its vote on the name change, NYC Audubon has welcomed new members and expects money from big grant-makers that might not have previously considered funding the chapter, he added.
There’s some early signs of hope in its peers’ reports. When Birds Georgia first changed its name, the former Audubon Society chapter lost a few members but picked up many more new ones, Executive Director Jared A. Teutsch has reported.
- If the name change is part of our mission to be more equitable and inclusive, what other steps are we taking towards that goal?
NYC Audubon’s work already centers these values, said Angela Co, a board member and chair of the EDIA (equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility) committee. Co cited its free multilingual public programs and ones focused on access for people with mobility issues. The chapter also runs initiatives that make it easier for residents of public housing projects to learn about birding and nature in their own backyards. NYC Audubon also focuses on research and advocacy efforts to, for instance, increase the number of green roofs in neighborhoods with little access to green spaces or water.
- How does the name change actually help us save birds?
“In today’s conservation movement, we need everyone’s help in understanding how birds help us, and in New York City, it’s more important than ever,” said Mike Yuan, the executive vice president of the board of directors. “A diversity of birds requires a diversity of people; everyone needs to be involved.”
Welcoming as many people as possible means starting with the chapter’s name and with the work it already does, Yuan added.
“There were critics of our decision who felt that we were being distracted by our mission, that we weren’t focusing enough on birds, we were focused too much on people and ‘woke politics,’ ” Wilson later told Epicenter. “But the reality is you have to involve people in that work or there will be no more birds.”