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Birds Connect Seattle, formerly known as Seattle Audubon, is one of at least eight Audubon affiliates that changed its name to distance itself from slave owner John James Audubon. (David Ryder for The Free Press)

Flight Club: Is the Movement to Rename the Audubon Society for the Birds?

John James Audubon owned slaves. The famous conservation organization bearing his name is now riven over what to do about this history.

As Egyptian geese and an LAPD helicopter circle overhead, Chuck Almdale, a 76-year-old bird-watcher, skirts past a homeless camp. He stops on the banks of a sewage treatment pond filled with mallards, coots, and herons, and sets up a spotting scope.

With scattered trash and people sleeping in cars nearby, it isn’t quite National Geographic, but all this birdlife smack-dab in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles is still pretty impressive.

“As long as people keep flushing their toilet, we’ve got a steady supply of water here, and that attracts birds,” says Almdale, sidestepping a human turd.

Suddenly he looks up.

“There goes a bushtit!” he yells, as a tiny bird streaks past.

Almdale is a lifelong member of the Audubon Society, a nonprofit made up mainly of retirees who trudge through tall grass looking for woodcocks and shags. In 1896, a pair of upper-crust Bostonian ladies founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society in a bid to outlaw feather hats. They named the group after John James Audubon, the fine artist and bird collector whose paintings and books influenced Charles Darwin and sparked public protections of animals, helping birth the modern conservation movement. (The national wing formed in 1905.)

For decades, the society has quietly protected birds, wildlands, and parks without getting anyone’s beak out of joint. But lately, members of this organization have got their feathers ruffled over a very human issue: race.

The problem is Audubon himself, who lived from 1785 to 1851, and owned at least nine black slaves who worked the family home in Henderson, Kentucky. “He also used enslaved people as assistants in the field while he was shooting birds to collect specimens,” adds Gregory Nobles, a biographer who says Audubon was dismissive of the abolition movement and frequently hunted in the South. “At one point, Audubon took two enslaved men down the Mississippi to New Orleans and sold them. I don’t know how you can spend so much time in close quarters with people and then sell both the boat and the men.”

Records show Audubon also robbed Native American graves and collected human skulls. Today, many consider him a racist even though some believe he may have been mixed-race, owing to a Creole mother, and passed himself off as white.

“Simply to say he was a man of his time and bore no responsibility on slavery is historically and intellectually a mistake,” Nobles asserts.

Now, some Audubon birders want the national society’s name changed. They believe a rebrand will help conservation because more people of all races will be attracted to the cause (although no alternative titles have been agreed upon). Opponents argue that changing the name means losing brand affinity. Most Americans—including big donors—associate Audubon with birds, they say, and changing the name risks the very conservation they seek to promote. 

The debate properly started in March 2022, when the National Audubon Society assigned a task force to examine the impact of a name change in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. The task force, comprising some of the society’s then–26 board members, studied Audubon’s life with a historian and a philosopher, and had meetings about the issue but didn’t formally survey outside members for their thoughts, multiple task force members told me.

“We didn’t really know what steps were in the process after we had submitted our reports—until we saw the ultimate decision,” says Nobles, the historian who was hired as a task force consultant. 

Meanwhile, rank-and-file members across the country waited for news, expecting a name change from the national wing as proof that the group—which has 1.5 million members and took in $152 million in revenue last year—was moving with the times. In 2021, Audubon magazine printed an article by a former black board member arguing for a new name, stating that “the founding father of American birding soared on the wings of white privilege.” The national wing had also published blog posts reflecting on its namesake’s dark history—both of which foreshadowed a rebrand, members told me.

One year later, according to multiple task force members who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, the task force’s internal report recommended a name change. And yet—in a shock move—the board voted against it

And though the board announced plans to devote $25 million to diversity programs, three board members resigned in protest over the decision to keep the Audubon name. 

“He was a racist, a slave owner, he desecrated Indian burial sites,” Erin Giese, one of the board members who quit, told me.

Chuck Almdale, center, leading a group of bird-watchers in Malibu, California, opposed the Audubon name change, both for his local affiliate and the national society. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Free Press)

At the same time, members at Audubon’s more than 450 chapters and groups did their own soul-searching. Over the past year, at least eight have voted to change their names: New York, Chicago, Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, Portland in Oregon, Madison in Wisconsin, and the Audubon Naturalist Society in Maryland (which is completely independent). Last October, the Naturalist Society rechristened itself Nature Forward, and in March, Seattle Audubon became Birds Connect Seattle, but the other six are still unsure what to call themselves. (While these local groups operate mostly independently and raise their own money, many also receive some funds from the national organization, in addition to sharing its name.)

Almdale, in Los Angeles, made it clear he was against the change both nationally and locally at his 800-strong Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, posting about name changes on his chapter’s blog. His local club didn’t even take the debate to a vote, he told me. 

“We decided not to judge Audubon by modern standards,” Almdale said. 

He says the division isn’t red versus blue. It’s far-left versus center-left. And it’s more generational than racial. 

“I’m basically a progressive,” says Almdale, who drives a Prius, voted for Hillary and Biden, and calls himself a Never Trumper. “I’m old, I’m white, I’m a man. So what? I’m angry. Audubon’s known for birds, for helping and enjoying them. If we change, what are we?”

He calls the battle over language a “divider” and “propaganda.”

Like many birders, he’s obsessed with names, particularly McCown’s longspur, a rare ground-feeder that lives in the grasslands of the Great Plains and was named after the man who first discovered it: Confederate soldier John McCown. “It’s a hard bird to find,” Almdale says, adding that McCown was “a frontier ornithologist.” No one knows what his beliefs were, Almdale says. But after petitions and a fierce online campaign, the American Ornithological Society officially renamed McCown’s longspur to the thick-billed longspur in 2020.

Today there are 155 North American bird names on a change list that “represent colonialism,” according to two ornithologists who started the list in 2020. That includes Hammond’s flycatcher, named after William Alexander Hammond, a U.S. surgeon general, and Townsend’s warbler, named after John Kirk Townsend, a Quaker naturalist who hailed from a family of abolitionists. The work of both men, according to a Washington Post op-ed written by the change list authors, led to the desecration of Native American graves.

“We cannot subjectively decide—especially if the adjudicators are White—that some names can be retained because they are associated with less abhorrent pasts than others,” the ornithologists Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter argued in their piece. “We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked.”

But Almdale says the whole controversy is overblown. “They want to change the name of that bird or of Audubon simply because they don’t like that person. That’s a stupid reason to change a name,” he says, nudging a dead catfish at the water’s edge. 

A Rufous hummingbird feeds its young near Olympia, Washington. One West Coast chapter leader said the Audubon controversy “made liberal-minded people strikingly illiberal—in an organization that’s historically bipartisan because everybody loves birds.” (David Ryder for The Free Press)

Christian Cooper, a black board member at the New York City Audubon, became the most famous birder in America after he clashed with a white woman in Central Park over leashing her dog on May 25, 2020—the same day George Floyd was killed. The “Central Park Karen” episode, as his viral conflict with Amy Cooper (no relation) quickly came to be known, led to her losing her job, fleeing the country, and going into hiding. Christian, meanwhile, secured an interview with Joe Biden when he was a presidential candidate and won a starring role in the National Geographic series Extraordinary Birder, which debuts June 21. 

Christian tells me over the phone that the entire Central Park incident was “nonsense,” exaggerated by reporters. But he didn’t blow off the debate over Audubon’s name change for his local NYC chapter, which has around 10,000 members. In March, he and other board members voted that the group should rebrand, but “we haven’t announced what the new name will be because we don’t know yet.” He said a new brand will help preserve the group’s future as more people become aware of their namesake’s past. 

“They’ll find out,” Cooper said. “Most people think Audubon is some German highway. But people will find out. When they do, and they hear that national decided not to change the name, they’ll walk.”

Cooper, 60, was a youth board member of his local Audubon chapter growing up in Long Island, but learned about the legacy of the group’s namesake only four to five years ago—and when that happened, “my reaction was schizophrenic.” 

“I passionately feel both sides because I’ve been a lifelong birder and lifelong Audubon member. To me, Audubon means the protection of birds and their habitat. That’s Audubon. Then as a black person, you find this out, and oh no, that’s got to go. It was very much a wrestling match for me as far as what side to fall on.”

Like all the local chapters who’ve voted to change, the New York City group will remain affiliated with the national organization, from which it receives about $30,000 of its $1.8 million annual budget. Cooper admits they could face backlash and lose donations. 

“You’re a fool if you’re not worried about that,” said Cooper, who referred to John James Audubon as “an ass” during our conversation.

He’s right to be worried.

After the Madison chapter decided to change its name, multiple anonymous angry birders canceled future donations totaling more than $500,000, admitted Matthew Reetz, a wildlife ecologist in Wisconsin who heads the 3,400-strong affiliate. That’s big money for a group with a $1 million annual budget. 

“We’ve lost some big donors, some members. We’ve gotten some hate mail,” said Reetz, 49. “But we’ve also gotten a lot of support. We’ll find out more at the end of the year toward the giving season.”

Reetz says none of his board members wanted to keep the name, and “we certainly heard ‘Go woke, go broke,’ ” he adds. “If they want to call us virtue-signalers, I’m not offended because it’s not true.”

Other birders say many are staying silent because they are scared of being perceived as bigoted. One West Coast chapter leader who moved not to rebrand his group (and doesn’t want his name or the name of his organization published) told me: “If you say the wrong thing on this, the mob is unleashed. This issue made liberal-minded people strikingly illiberal—in an organization that’s historically bipartisan because everybody loves birds.”

Glenn Nelson led the charge to change Seattle Audubon’s name to Birds Connect Seattle, admitting that “makes me a villain to a lot of people.” (David Ryder for The Free Press)

We’re living in a moment where every cultural organization is reexamining and outwardly apologizing for its history—from tour guides at Monticello now emphasizing to visitors that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner to Princeton removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from a campus building for being a racist.

And Audubon is far from the only environmental organization grappling with these issues. The Sierra Club, which was founded in 1892 and has 3.8 million members, making it one of the nation’s biggest conservation groups, was roiled by an internal rebellion in 2020 over claims its founder John Muir was a racist. In 2021, their white executive director resigned, and last January, black former NAACP activist Ben Jealous took over, promising to make racial equity as important as saving trees.

“This is huge and it goes way beyond Audubon,” says Douglas Futuyma, 81, a retired Stony Brook University professor and lifelong birder who recently chased a yellow-throated warbler through Manhattan with Christian Cooper. He isn’t sure what’s right, but worries “Are we going to delete history? Will we close the great paintings in the Met because they objectify the female body? Will Audubon lose effectiveness as the face for conservation?”

While 82 percent of all birders and 78 percent of Audubon’s leadership are white (72 percent of all Audubon members were female as of 2019), Almdale says the diversity problem isn’t about race. It’s about age. 

“Who wants to look at birds, who has time? Old people. That skews membership. But birders welcome anyone, as long as they care about birds.”

Glenn Nelson disagrees with Almdale that the Audubon Society should live and let live. The 65-year-old Japanese American is a former journalist who became the Seattle chapter’s community director last year, and led the successful push to change its name.

“I woke up one morning, turned to my wife, and said the Audubon name harms marginalized communities, consequences be damned,” Nelson said.

Nelson admits “we’ve had members and donors stop giving us money,” but he wouldn’t share specifics, saying that his crusade “makes me a villain to a lot of people.”

A handful of local members I spoke to don’t entirely dispute that characterization of Nelson, but feared saying so on the record. Jerry Coyne—an evolutionary biologist and the author of Why Evolution is True, who penned a blog post about Audubon’s name controversy—isn’t so shy. Speaking about Nelson, he said, “He’s pretending to do something to foster racial equity. In reality, he’s making himself feel good and promoting his virtues by saying he’s creating a safe space for all ethnicities, which he’s not doing because he’s turning others off.”

But Nelson, the father of two women, said he doesn’t care. “I’m doing this for me, for my daughters,” by railing against the “white supremacist framework built into the DNA of the outdoors.”

Seattle is among the most liberal chapters in the country, with over 4,200 members, about 90 percent of whom are white, Nelson said. He is now working to change that by building partnerships with black and indigenous groups, focusing on nature, not politics. 

“What I don’t get is why is this a debate in these times in our society?” he said.

“They want to change the name of that bird or of Audubon simply because they don’t like that person,” says Chuck Almdale (second from right). “That’s a stupid reason to change a name.” (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Free Press)

Back in L.A., Chuck Almdale has packed up his scope and is headed for the Prius. The great Audubon rift is far from over, says the retired accountant, who predicts that more birders will squabble as they start learning about their namesake’s past.

“The hardest part of trying to change is actually listening to the other side. You want to tell them why they’re wrong, and when you listen, you have to get rid of the automatic filter that says this guy’s an idiot. Allow that you might be persuaded. And there’s very little that’s enjoyable about that.” 

He shut the trunk and turned to me. 

“I love names and birding is my life’s passion. I don’t want to be in a silo, I don’t. But they’re wrong and I’m right,” he chuckled.

Adam Popescu is a writer for The Free Press.

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