Chicago Audubon Society to Scrub ‘Audubon’ From Name, Saying Naturalist’s Troubling History ‘Doesn’t Work For Us’

John James Audubon's illustrations are still revered, but the naturalist's troubling history is being called into question. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)John James Audubon's illustrations are still revered, but the naturalist's troubling history is being called into question. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

The Chicago Audubon Society announced Monday that it intends to drop “Audubon” from its name, and is encouraging the National Audubon Society to do the same.

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“Audubon is not an appropriate standard-bearer for our organization,” the Chicago chapter stated in a letter to the national organization. (Audubon chapters are individual entities; regional offices like Audubon Great Lakes are affiliates of the national parent.)

This makes Chicago the second large city, following Seattle in 2022, to force an uncomfortable conversation about John James Audubon, for whom the society is named. He was not, however, involved in its founding, which occurred several decades after his death

“As a big-city chapter, we wanted to put it out there: The name doesn’t work for us,” said Judy Pollock, the chapter’s president.

It’s quite the reversal for the name Audubon, associated for more than 100 years with one of the most respected conservation organizations in the U.S.

But as a more complete, and complex, portrait has emerged of John James Audubon, birders and ornithologists have struggled to reconcile their missions with the troubling aspects of his legacy. Though Audubon’s illustrations and descriptions of birds, published in the groundbreaking book “Birds of America,” remain revered as works of art and science, the history of the man himself includes buying and selling slaves, plagiarism and the exploitation of natural resources.  

“His contributions to ornithology, art and culture are enormous,” but Audubon “did despicable things during his life,” David Yarnold, former president and CEO of National Audubon Society, wrote in a blog post.

It’s similar to a dilemma faced by the Sierra Club, which has reckoned with the racist leanings of its founder and vaunted naturalist John Muir.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing for a contemporary conservation organization to have a name that looks back to a time when we were kicking people off their land,” said Pollock.

A spokesperson for the National Audubon Society told WTTW News that the organization is in the midst of a robust evaluation of its name. The process has included gathering feedback from people across the Audubon network, digging into research about John James Audubon and analyzing the impact of the name on the society’s work. 

No date has been set for the national society’s board of directors to make a decision, the spokesperson said.

Regardless of what happens on the national level, the Chicago chapter will jettison Audubon within a year, Pollock said.

She acknowledged the choice could have financial repercussions for the local nonprofit.

“The name Audubon is really the gold standard in bird conservation — when people think of bird conservation, they think ‘Audubon.’ People put us in their wills,” she said.

But from both an ethical and practical standpoint, the best way forward for the Chicago chapter is to establish a fresh identity.

At a time when nature and environmental organizations are working to become more diverse and inclusive — particularly in the wake of incidents like Christian Cooper having the cops called on him for being “Black while birding” in New York City — continuing to venerate men like Muir and Audubon “leaves out almost everyone else” who isn’t a White male, Pollock said, including women like herself. 

And that’s become an issue as the Chicago chapter is seeking to hire its first-ever executive director, she said. Prospective candidates have asked, “Are you changing your name?”

“I really think this is an idea whose time has come,” said Pollock. 

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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