Before embarking on this post, I did a quick search to see how many times the name “Audubon” comes up in Garden Rant posts and comments. The answer: many, many times, though – interestingly – not always in a complimentary manner. We’ve taken the National Audubon Society to task for buying into overly general meme-centered directives like “leave the leaves.” But we’ve also been supportive of the society’s bird conservation initiatives, and, looking at comments, it seems like many of our readers are too.

There might be other reasons to critique the society, but it’s safe to say that those have been swallowed up by the now-raging controversy over naming anything whatsoever after John James Audubon (1785 – 1851), the famous artist and ornithologist. Though his being a slave owner must have been widely known for decades, if not often discussed, Audubon’s active anti-abolitionism, and really disgusting attitudes toward Black and Indigenous people were rarely talked about.

But since at least 2020, more voices have been heard insisting that this shameful part of his legacy be confronted and that steps be taken to repudiate it. Those steps have included requests that the Audubon name be removed from many of the organizations and places where it is used. 

Last month, the National Audubon Society decided to keep the name, though branches in Seattle, Chicago, Washington, DC, Portland, Madison, WI, and others are discarding it, which they’re free to do, as the ties between the national organization and the branches are minimal. 

This is a massive issue. There are streets, neighborhoods, parks, historic sites, libraries and more named after this guy, all across the country.

In Buffalo/Western New York, the local society is considering a name change. But the people who live in the communities and on the streets named after Audubon are not quite as sure about changing anything, nor are the town officials who’d have to manage it all.

Buffalo’s science museum was saved from near-extinction by the sale of a lesser edition of “The Birds of America” (our library has a much better folio, page from it shown above). One of these sold for $11 million at Sotheby’s in 2010.

Interestingly, many birds are named after explorers or naturalists who were also racists

The societies who are changing their names are easily finding substitutes, like “Nature Forward,” “Bird Union,” and “Birds Connect.” It’s not like Audubon founded any of these things named after him; he wasn’t a conservationist, which, to be fair, wasn’t as much of a thing back then.

He was no Olmsted.

I have no issue with getting rid of the name, where possible. The national society is taking a lot of heat for not doing so, and I can understand why. It is tougher for them, but maybe they should.

I won’t disavow the art though. I try to see the portfolio whenever our library has it on view and would be fine with an Audubon art center if primarily displaying the bird paintings and prints – as well as other bird art –  was its major purpose. 

But we don’t need his name to help birds.