Birds of the same feather fly together, so it’s no surprise that the usual suspects some would identify as “woke” are urging Audubon Societies across the United States to change their names. We don’t count ourselves in the field that it must clean up a fallen society by renaming everything: Columbia University must keep its name, despite the complicated but profoundly important legacy of Christopher Columbus, but in this case, the state and local teams rebranding are left alone in their pick, even as the national Audubon Society stands its ground.
John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a brilliant bird watcher, naturalist, and artist, but also a racist who did a lot of bad things. He enslaved blacks and wrote negatively about emancipation. He was credibly accused of academic fraud and plagiarism. His offenses were despicable, the Audubon Society has stated, “even by the standards of his time.” Nor was Audubon responsible for the creation of the society that bears his name; it was founded 50 years after his death. The Audubon name is for many an unfortunate and distracting ballast around the neck of an alliance of feathered friends.
For those who would argue that such a standard advocates the removal of any trace of, say, Teddy Roosevelt from the American Museum of Natural History, let’s just say, no: the TR statue’s sin was seated on a horse, plus two companions on foot. . Which reminds us that there is a giant statue of Audubon at the top of the same museum. Is coming down? With Audubon, the name of a highly accomplished man with deep moral flaws has become interchangeable with birds. If birders want change, so be it.
So you won’t read complaints here about the local Audubon Society you chose remove his name from his name, even while the national organization holds out. The times change; Not all names need remain fixed in place, especially when a particular individual’s life and values seem at odds with those now connected with an institution. Bon voyage to Confederate place names, bon voyage to Calhoun College at Yale, bon voyage to the Audubon Society of New York City.