Common American Swan from Birds of America (1827) by John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), etched by Robert Havell (1793 - 1878).

The North Fork Audubon Society is weighing whether to rename the local chapter of the nature preservation group to remove the reference to John James Audubon, the namesake of the longtime American birding organization who was a slaveholder, racist and opponent of abolition. 

The National Audubon Society voted last March against dropping the renowned naturalist from its name, but some local chapters of the Audubon Society, which are independent nonprofit organizations, decided they would change their names despite the decision.

Ellen Birenbaum, a North Fork Audubon Society board member, wrote on the subject in the most recent issue of the organization’s newsletter, The Kingfisher. The organization is undertaking its own review of the name, Birenbaum wrote, and is seeking input from the group’s membership.

Birenbaum declined an interview with RiverheadLOCAL about the issue. She wrote in an emailed statement that the local group sent the article to approximately 1,800 people associated with the North Fork Audubon Society asking for their input. 

“We are pleased with the response and engagement from our members,” Birenbaum wrote. “We will be taking these responses into account when the Board of Directors makes its final decision.”  

John James Audubon (1826 by John Syme.) The White House Historical Association

John James Audubon, a French-American who lived from 1785-1851, was the United State’s dominant wildlife artist and naturalist, according to the National Audubon Society’s website. 

“His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day,” the National Audubon Society acknowledges in a profile of Audubon on its website. “He was contemporaneously and posthumously accused of — and most certainly committed — both academic fraud and plagiarism. But far worse, he enslaved Black people and wrote critically about emancipation. He stole human remains and sent the skulls to a colleague who used them to assert that whites were superior to non-whites.”

Audubon was not the founder of the birding organization that bears his name. The first Audubon Society was founded in 1896 — 45 years after Audubon’s death — by two Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, in opposition to the hunting and killing of birds for use of their feathers in clothing, according to Birenbaum. 

Other groups outside of Massachusetts followed Hemenway and Hall’s lead and formed their own local groups, according to the National Audubon Society. In 1905, the National Association of Audubon Societies was founded. Audubon organization activism has led to the passage of many state and federal laws that protected birds. 

The organization was named after Audubon because one of the society’s founder’s, George Bird Grinnell, was tutored by Audubon’s widow, and chose Audubon because of his contributions to wildlife art and history, according to the Audubon Society. 

The National Audubon Society decided last March to retain its name after a year-long process of examining Audubon’s personal history. The Audubon Society’s move was not unique, Birenbaum noted in her essay; several other predominantly white conservation groups were examining how their own history was connected to racists after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked a racial reckoning across the country.

The National Audubon Society commissioned historical research into Audubon and surveyed the group’s membership and staff before making its decision, it said. The group also announced a commitment of $25 million to expand “equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging,” or EDIB, efforts in environmental conservation over five years.

“The name has come to represent so much more than the work of one person, but a broader love of birds and nature, and a non-partisan approach to conservation,” Susan Bell, the chairperson of the organization’s board of directors, said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “We must reckon with the racist legacy of John James Audubon and embody our EDIB values in all that we do. In doing so, we will ensure that Audubon stands for an inclusive future in which we unite diverse coalitions to protect birds and the places they need.”   

Three national board members resigned after the decision, according to NPR. Several local chapters had already renamed themselves to remove their association with Audubon, and several more announced plans to rename themselves despite the national organization’s decision. NYC Audubon is one such chapter. 

Birenbaum said in her essay that it would take “6 to 8 months to examine the impact of the ‘Audubon’ name on our mission to protect wild birds and their habitat and to connect people to nature.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com