What's in a Name? Dropping “Audubon”

We will continue to dedicate ourselves to making our city safer for birds like the Common Yellowthroat, a frequent collision victim in New York City. Photo: Rumen Raykov / Getty Images

A condensed version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Urban Audubon publication.

By Karen Benfield, NYC Bird Alliance Board President

At a time when birds are threatened by climate change, habitat loss, and the risks of built infrastructure in urban environments, it is vital to enlist support from all the communities across New York City. The more people who hear our message and help us save bird populations, the better. 

It is because of this mission that our Board of Directors decided to change the organization’s name, dropping the “Audubon” that has been part of our identity for 44 years. By taking this difficult but crucial action, we will enhance our efforts to conserve the city’s birds and their habitat.

Over eight months, our board and staff thoroughly examined how the “Audubon” name affects our mission, values, and work. We weighed the impact of the name on our conservation, engagement, and advocacy goals, and considered complex factors including brand recognition; alignment with our commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility; our partnerships and credibility; and the time and cost involved in a name change. We spoke with members, supporters, partners, volunteers, scientists, and historians who provided helpful feedback and insights. We are sharing a selection of them in this newsletter. 

We value John James Audubon’s contributions to art and ornithology. Our assessment also explored how his work helped spark the country’s conservation movement. It is important to note, however, that he was not directly involved in bird protection efforts, nor did he found the many Audubon Societies which bear his name. Most important, the more we learned about John James Audubon’s actions and views towards people of color and Indigenous people—including his ownership, purchase and sale of enslaved people and his writings defending slavery against the abolitionist movement—and the more that racist past became publicly known, the more we became convinced that the negative consequences of continuing to use his name outweighed the positive.

Our assessment ultimately concluded that continued association of our organization with the Audubon name not only raised deeply troubling ethical issues, but also would increasingly harm our vital efforts to extend our work and support across all communities of the city. In short, we concluded that the negative connotations attached to the Audubon name now outweigh the positives. In order for us to promote our mission of bird conservation, advocacy, and engagement as widely as possible, we determined that the name must change.

We are not alone in making this change. Many other chapters, especially in large cities, have made the same decision, though the National Audubon Society intends to keep its name. Despite a different name, we will remain a chapter of the national organization and continue our partnerships to protect birds across the flyways.

We don’t yet know what our new name will be. Time is needed to collect input and to identify a name that feels inclusive and welcoming to all New Yorkers. We invite your suggestions, and for you to learn more about our process here and on our website at nycaudubon.org/audubon-name.

I am proud to be part of an organization that is unafraid of reflection and evolution. Our name will change, but our mission won’t. We will keep protecting wild birds and their habitat across the five boroughs, and engaging all New Yorkers in those efforts, to shape a healthier and more sustainable city for birds and people. This is an important time for bird conservation. We step forward with great excitement and purpose. 

What’s in a name? Voices from the community

As an African American and lifelong birder, I stand firmly in the camp that the Audubon name must go—because such a change will help save more birds. If we as advocates for the wild want to guarantee a future with a healthy diversity of birds, then we must foster a healthy diversity of people who value them. Instead of letting our name be a barrier to reaching more people, we’re seizing this opportunity to tell ever-wider audiences who we are and what we do: protect birds and their habitats, to the benefit of all New Yorkers.
Christian Cooper, Vice President, Board of Directors

If you have ever looked at the John James Audubon watercolors at the New-York Historical Society, you are awe struck by the artist’s clear and beautiful representation of birds and their habitat. What genius! However, his artistry cannot negate or erase his racist mindset. I am no longer comfortable wearing a t-shirt with his name nor referring to my chapter as New York City “Audubon.” I support the board, staff, and community members’ carefully considered decision to remove his name. Now there is an extraordinary opportunity to re-invent a name that celebrates the diversity of life in New York City.

Marcia Fowle, NYC Bird Alliance Advisory Council; past Board Member and the organization’s first Executive Director

Our work with NYC Bird Alliance is focused not just on habitat restoration, but on shared goals of introducing and engaging communities with core concepts of urban ecology through place-based learning. For this education work to be successful it has to be inclusive. This means addressing what restoration looks like in hyper-developed areas like NYC, and how it relates to people's day-to-day lives, but it also means confronting the problematic legacies tied to most large-scale conservation movements. Social justice, environmental justice, and environmental protection are tied together, and we can not afford to ignore these connections. We commend NYC Bird Alliance in taking steps to address these issues and work towards inclusivity that will ultimately benefit both the wildlife and human communities that call NYC home.

– Willis Elkins, Executive Director, Newtown Creek Alliance

Though we'll have a new name, our work with chapters along the Atlantic Flyway and across the country will continue, and we remain committed to our partnership with National Audubon. The critical issues facing birds require everyone to work together.
– Mike Yuan, Executive Vice President, Board of Directors

I support the change to ensure a warm welcome to the organization for bird-lovers of all races. That said, let’s not forget the great contributions John James Audubon made to science and art. On appropriate occasions, those contributions should still be recognized in the organization’s lectures and other programs.

– Jai Chandrashekhar, NYC Bird Alliance member

here has always been a level of prestige attributed to the Audubon brand. Nearly everyone has heard and knows of the Audubon Society; “Audubon” is synonymous with birding. For nearly thirty years I have facilitated an experience with birds in the natural world for thousands of Staten Islanders and not one of them ever shared disdain for the deplorable aspects of the life of John James Audubon. Changing the name of NYC Bird Alliance is a performative stunt. The NYC Bird Alliance organization remains a charter of the National Audubon Society and each member of the organization remains intrinsically tied to the name of John James Audubon. One can change the name, but one cannot change that relationship. So, let us be reminded of the powerful proverb, a bird does not change feathers because the weather is bad.

– Cliff Hagen, bird guide and naturalist/educator

Our founding members wanted to protect bird habitat and share birding with others, and equity and inclusion have long been central in our pursuit of those goals. But as we dug into the history of John James Audubon, we realized the negative impact that the Audubon name had on our ability to welcome everyone into that work. And once you know the history, you can’t unknow it. The next inclusive step for our mission is changing our name.

– Angie Co, NYC Bird Alliance Board of Directors and Co-Chair, EDIA Committee

I never associated NYC Bird Alliance or its mission with Audubon himself, since my primary interest in joining (many years ago) was environmental conservation—not something I identified with John James and his delight in shooting birds. Only later did I became a birder. For me, the name represents a long, happy relationship with kindred spirits and a sense of community with fellow birders.

So I have a sentimental attachment to the name “NYC Bird Alliance.”

However—if indeed “the use of ‘Audubon’ in the name affects our ability to retain and attract staff, board members, supporters, volunteers, and organization members,” as stated on the website—then the name must be changed, both for those who object to the bad vibes the name holds for them, and for those that have little idea of who Audubon was and for whom the name means nothing. We want everyone to share our goals and our enjoyment of birds and nature.

– Mary Jane Kaplan, NYC Bird Alliance Advisory Council and past Board Member

I think dropping the Audubon name is a faulty decision. The name, as it has been associated with the birding association over the last 100+ years, does not bring to mind John James Audubon, the man with opinions once common, but no longer respectable. Instead, it brings to mind the conservation organization that has done so much to save bird species in the past and is doing so in the present.

Changing the name does nothing except virtue signal. I can understand some reluctance to identify with the man and his opinions. However, censorship of the opinions of the dead is foolish. The time will likely come when our current opinions will be held to be scandalously offensive. Do we really want to begin a cycle of posthumous censorship?

It’s particularly faulty if this is not the decision of the National Audubon Society. Those local groups that drop the name risk becoming second-tier organizations with considerably less clout than they had. At a minimum they risk losing the immediate name recognition that the general public has around the Audubon name. Moreover, the lack of name recognition may result in diminished funding.

– Margaret Duffy, NYC Bird Alliance member

I was very excited to hear about NYC Bird Alliance’s decision to change its name. This organization does impressive work towards bird conservation, but it does so within a diverse city and through the work of a diverse group of people, and it’s important that its choices indicate awareness of that. As someone who reflects that diversity and works with the organization, it is very meaningful to me that they are willing to rethink the historical choice to celebrate an extremely racist man, and to adapt to changing landscapes. To me, that is reflective of an organization that will be able to endure and continue to do the important work of protecting birds and wildlife.

– Efua Peterson, bird guide and Young Conservationist Council member

I am someone whose family is negatively impacted by the aftermath of colonization. I’ve struggled to see myself as part of a conservation legacy when many of its great figures enacted harm that reaches across generations. While it’s easy to be dismissive of something that doesn’t impact you, it’s also a reminder that empathy is a muscle we all could do better to exercise. There are so many people I’ve spoken to (well before 2020) that have a deep distrust for conservation organizations who haven’t acknowledged the nuanced, and often painful, legacies of their forefathers—as a result, choosing not to join these efforts. Meanwhile, our planet is in crisis, and we need as many people working together as possible.

A new name won’t absolve all ills, nor will it erase the positive contributions of any individual—but it will shift focus to the importance of the cause, which is most effectively addressed by collective action. As a volunteer, I witness the effectiveness of this daily. When we stop centering one person or the other, we can get things done!

– Divya Anantharaman, NYC Bird Alliance volunteer

In my childhood home, Audubon’s Pileated Woodpeckers greeted visitors inside the front door. I grew up attending meetings of our local Audubon Society with my birdwatcher father. And over the past 15 years, my work with NYC Bird Alliance and National Audubon has reconnected me to the great gift of birds my father gave me. You’d think I might cling to the Audubon name. My father was also a Quaker, however. The Quakers urged us to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” That simple call for empathy has echoed in my mind, as a White man, as I’ve understood the feelings of Black birders who recoil from continuing to honor an unrepentant slaveholder and anti-abolitionist. Audubon’s paintings are beautiful. They will not be forgotten. But our organization need not honor the man. We must not, if we truly wish to welcome all into the fight to protect the birds we love.

– Tod Winston, NYC Bird Alliance Urban Biodiversity Specialist and bird guide

I feel strongly that the name change is really meaningless. When you study American history and see the milieu that John Audubon had around him, he surely was not a great exception. Many others had similar points of view. One cannot change history by simply changing names or removing statues! In my opinion, changing our name solves few if any problems related to inclusion; it may even create new ones. I am and have always been a very liberal-minded person in all phases of my life, and totally support our focus to a more inclusive organization (and society). However without the well-known NYC Bird Alliance name, our organization will lose important recognition, and will therefore lose clout.
– Claude Bloch, MD, NYC Bird Alliance Advisory Council and past Board Member

As NYC Bird Alliance’s Director of Development from 2015 to 2021, I have lived and breathed our reputation and our brand. My work included communications, and I talked with a lot of people at festivals and outreach events. I also continue to work as a bird walk leader for NYC Bird Alliance, with a focus on welcoming new and young birders. In my experience, “Audubon” means very little to people younger than myself (a youngish baby boomer) and to people who are not yet birders. Far from being something like a household name, it’s not readily recognized. I’ve had to explain so many times to people why we have this name, and, now that John James’s history has been daylighted, apologize for that legacy. Believe it or not, “What does the Audubon society seek to protect?” was a question during a trivia game I played at a bar recently.

The name has always been hard to spell and there is no clear understanding—even among birders—that each Audubon Society has its own mission and board and priorities. A perfect case study in brand confusion. Dropping “Audubon” is not throwing away gold, and our embrace of change gives credibility to our leading-edge approach to conservation practices and to our equity, diversity, and inclusion values.

– Kellye Rosenheim, staff alumna and bird guide

I must register my dismay at your changing the name of the Audubon. George Washington had slaves. Are we to rename the GW Bridge? Should everything named after Thomas Jefferson be renamed? Yes, it's horrific that Audubon had slaves. And his brilliant contributions to ornithology don't excuse that. But dropping his name and the recognition it brings to the NYC Bird Alliance will only hurt our fine feathered friends.

– Patricia Volk, NYC Bird Alliance member

As an Afro-Latina birder, I’m proud to be part of an organization that values marginalized voices. Our bird outings, lectures, and festivals are intrinsically tied with inclusivity and belonging. Everyone, especially Black and Indigenous people of color who’ve been historically excluded from the conservation movement, should feel like our community is a place where they are welcome and valued.

– Roslyn Rivas, NYC Bird Alliance Public Programs Manager

I’m deeply impressed by the courageousness of NYC Bird Alliance’s decision to rename the chapter based on recognition of John James Audubon’s actions and values which were profoundly flawed and more than troubling. NYC Bird Alliance’s achievements on behalf of birds since its founding in 1979 are enormous. It would be deeply sad, and a profound disservice to birds and conservation, to hinder the organization’s work due to a lack of interest in its ongoing and future stewardship because younger generations find the name anachronistic and a barrier to their involvement. Instead, a new name will be far more welcoming to, and therefore will allow the organization to enlist, a broader range of members, volunteers, program participants, staff and donors. New York City has one of the most diverse populations of any city in the world. A new more inclusive name is a thoughtful, brave, and necessary step to ensure the organization’s future and effectiveness.

– Jamie Johnson, NYC Bird Alliance member and volunteer

Names and language matter. I am proud to be a collaborator and member of the organization soon-to-be formerly known as NYC Bird Alliance as they take this step to create a more welcoming and inclusive organization. When our very language perpetuates a history of racism and colonialism, it is hard to imagine that we can make meaningful progress toward repairing these broken legacies—and since the subjugation of nature and people are intimately linked, without such repair we cannot achieve our missions. A greener world is a more just world. In every facet of the conservation and environmental movement, we need to make sure our language, programs, advocacy, and organizations fully represent the incredible diversity of our world and communities—and I applaud steps to create this greener and more just future.

– Emily Noble Maxwell, Director, Cities Program, The Nature Conservancy

Our name will change, but we remain committed to the conservation and advocacy work which has been our mission and focus for more than 40 years. We must ensure that we reach out to a diverse audience including people of all ages and racial identity. The Audubon name has become a barrier to that goal. We owe it to the long history of the organization to face this reality. We must broaden both our membership and our credibility with a larger constituency in order to be effective in meeting the daunting challenges facing birds and our environment in the years ahead.

– Marsilia Boyle, NYC Bird Alliance Board of Directors and Co-Chair, Conservation Committee

It takes courage to change your name—courage, and confidence that your core values make you what you are, that you won’t somehow disappear. When the controversy over the Audubon name began, American Bird Conservancy discussed the issue seriously: what would we do, how would we respond to either decision, made by our partner organizations?

While we have to respect the decision made by National Audubon, we applaud NYC Bird Alliance for choosing a path that is both more challenging but more in keeping with the demands of today’s world—recognizing the implications of associations with a past that we must reject, living up to the complexities of strongly felt ethics and awareness of implied injustice. NYC Bird Alliance will continue to function as a successful and important force for bird conservation, under whatever name they choose, because it is their actions that make them what they are.

– Christine Sheppard, PhD, Director - Glass Collisions Program, American Bird Conservancy

The board made an excellent decision to change the name of NYC Bird Alliance in order to detach the organization from the ugly parts of John James Audubon's legacy.

There is another reason to change the name. The name Audubon says nothing about the mission of the organization. Surely a bird preservation organization should have the word "bird" in its title! Bird Names for Birds is a movement that endorses naming birds, not after people, but rather after a characteristic of the bird. How about applying that principle to bird organizations too? As I look at other organizations with missions related to nature and the environment, they have names that are revealing: Earthjustice, Greenpeace, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, etc. Let’s pick a name that tells the world what we are about!

– Leigh Hallingby, Audubon Mural Project tour guide

As a member of the board of NYC Bird Alliance, my central aim and goal is bird conservation.
One of NYC Bird Alliance’s strategic goals is to market itself to the widest possible audience, recognizing that future aims and goals in bird conservation have the greatest chance of success when the widest plurality of society is mobilized for the cause. Accepting this line of reasoning, I believe we must provide the easiest path to entry for anyone with an interest in our organization and its conservation goals—particularly goals aimed at increasing representation from marginalized people who have historically been actively kept out of the conservation movement.

– Shawn Cargil, NYC Bird Alliance Board of Directors and Co-Chair, Education and Public Programs Committee

I applaud NYC Bird Alliance’s decision to change its name in order to make the organization more welcoming and inclusive. I imagine it was a difficult decision, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. There may be naysayers who complain that the organization is giving up the legacy and recognition that comes with the name, but for me, this is the start of something much brighter and more beautiful. While John James Audubon clearly added to the early conservation movement, his record as an anti-abolitionist overshadows everything else and leaves a pall on organizations bearing his name. How can a group dedicated to the joys of nature, for all, identify itself by the name of someone who championed oppression? I say good riddance. It’s time for a fresh start and a new name that welcomes everyone—and I am proud to volunteer with an organization that has the desire and vision to look ahead.

– Melissa Breyer, NYC Bird Alliance volunteer

Many have reacted to our name change with concern about losing  what has been our automatic name recognition and/or what is our current level of support from those who may feel an attachment to the Audubon name, but we have an additional and unique duty to the future. Our name cannot be a barrier to anyone now or in the future inspired to help us work toward realizing our vision of becoming an inclusive community of New Yorkers working toward a day when all wild birds and all people in the five boroughs enjoy a healthy, liveable environment.
– Linda Freeman, NYC Bird Alliance Board of Directors

The NYC Plover Project is very excited to learn of NYC Bird Alliance's decision to adopt a new name, and we look forward to continuing to partner in the mission of protecting New York City’s birds and their habitats. Diversity, equity, and community are as important to us as they are to NYC Bird Alliance. This is a promising new chapter, and we're hopeful of the positive changes this decision will bring.

– Chris Allieri & Mel Julien, NYC Plover Project

Bird and habitat conservation is often thought of as wildlife work. However, while the tools we use to understand trends and ecological connections examine biota, it is the people who perform conservation actions. For conservation to be successful in our city, all New Yorkers need to be involved—but the Audubon name has been a barrier that actively excludes the people whom birds need most. Yes, the Audubon name is recognized by many as a force for bird conservation, but our next name will be as well. And that next name will not be a symbol that says “participation in conservation is for a select few.” I am thrilled with the decision to move forward with a new name, both personally and professionally. We have correctly lifted a barrier to people engaging in conservation, and birds will be the beneficiaries.

– Dustin Partridge, PhD, NYC Bird Alliance Director of Conservation and Science

The rise in popularity of bird watching the past few years has been incredibly exciting, and this organization should do what it can to capitalize on it. This means making all current, new, and potential birders feel welcome and safe. It means growing the ranks of future conservationists and future donors who can make this organization an even more formidable force protecting our city’s habitats. We can't let this opportunity slip by!

– Simon Keyes, Young Conservationist Council member

Many NYC school children, including myself, were taught about the legacy of John James Audubon and the importance of protecting our precious native birds. However, learning about the other aspects of Audubon's life soured these memories, revealing Audubon not to be the familiar nature lover we once thought. We are thrilled that NYC Bird Alliance has chosen to acknowledge and reject this harmful legacy while continuing the critical work of protecting and advocating for our birds and natural spaces. This name change matters to us at Bronx River Alliance because, although we have always served Environmental Justice communities in the Bronx, we are constantly learning how to be more inclusive. NYC Bird Alliance is leading by example. We are proud of this monumental decision, and proud to continue our partnership.

– Christian Murphy, Ecology Coordinator, The Bronx River Alliance

NYC Bird Alliance is dedicated to the conservation and protection of birds and their habitats. However, its name celebrates a man who was a slave owner, anti-abolitionist, and white supremacist. When we continue to use John James Audubon’s name, we ignore his racist past. We now have a chance to make things right. Changing our name is an opportunity to say that we are rejecting Audubon’s legacy, that everyone is welcome, and that our commitment to diversity and inclusion is real.

– Jack Rothman, bird guide and naturalist/educator

Located in an underserved community in northern Manhattan, the waters and wetlands of the Harlem River and Sherman Creek were unsafe and inaccessible for many years. As New York Restoration Project restored the landscape in partnership with NYC Parks, the remarkable bird habitat has increasingly been recognized and appreciated. However, we have a long way to go in fully engaging the diverse communities of Northern Manhattan with the natural resources of the park, as there is no guarantee that the habitat will be protected. Particularly as the shoreline is modified to adapt to sea-level rise, we need a broad and motivated coalition to advocate for the conservation of bird habitat. NYC Bird Alliance is an invaluable partner in helping NYRP document the birds of Sherman Creek. The decision to change the name of the organization signals an effort to build a more inclusive movement to protect birds throughout NYC, an effort that is timely, just and critical.

– Jason Smith, Director - Northern Manhattan Parks, New York Restoration Project