Local Audubon Chapter Votes to Change Its Name

Local Audubon Chapter Votes to Change Its Name

John James Audubon claimed ownership of enslaved people

Pileated woodpecker, symbol of ASNV, taken at Roosevelt Island.

Pileated woodpecker, symbol of ASNV, taken at Roosevelt Island.

Libby Lyons, current president of the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV), has already seen 41 different species of birds this morning at Nags Head, North Carolina. She has arrived ahead of the weekend trip organized with the Virginia Society of Ornithology to get a head start. “I saw hundreds of pintails at the Bodie Island Lighthouse and hooded mergansers flying over the water. The avocets were a treat.” 

But she has taken a 10 a.m. break to discuss the announcement in the Potomac Flyer released Feb. 1 of the recent decision by the ASNV Board to change the name to remove the reference to John James Audubon. 

John Audubon is widely known for his “Birds of America,” painted in the 1800s when he was 35 and containing 435 life-sized watercolors of North American birds. But in recent years it has come to light that Audubon also had a less favorable side.

The newsletter explained, “Many concerns were raised by both supporters and opponents of a name change. These include the need for the organization to be inclusive and welcoming to all Virginians, the potential loss of name recognition and connection with the national Audubon Society and other Audubon chapters and not erasing the many positive contributions that James James Audubon made to American ornithology, while also not honoring Audubon’s ownership of enslaved people, collaboration with eugenics research, and scientific dishonesty.”

Tom Blackburn of McLean, past president of ASNV, had a big part in the effort to consider renaming the ASNV. “We started about a year ago when the National Audubon Society decided to look at the issue of renaming the national organization.” He says he thinks a lot of other things came together on the timing of the decision including Black Lives Matter and the incident in Central Park when a white female dog walker called the police and falsely claimed a Black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, was threatening her after he asked her to leash her dog. 

Blackburn says he would have been quite happy if the national Audubon Society had decided to rename itself and the local chapters could have just followed. The national chapter decided not to rename but indicated the local chapters were free to make their own decision.

Blackburn says that as the largest independent chapter of the 610 chapters around the country, it was important for the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia to evaluate the issue. “I felt that we needed to begin by doing extensive research. I felt some of the things that had been published around the national decision were a little bit too excited, and some turned out to be incorrect.”

The deliberation on whether to change the name included over six months of exploration, including a survey filled out by 481 members and reaching out to a dozen or so other chapters who have already changed their name. 

Lyons says, “The survey responses totaled over 25,000 words. It was like a small novel. People were so passionate.”

Deciding on dropping Audubon from its name: “Not erasing the many positive contributions that James James Audubon made to American ornithology, while also not honoring Audubon’s ownership of enslaved people, collaboration with eugenics research, and scientific dishonesty.” 

Lyons says they discovered a survey that had been used by a chapter in Alabama and modified it. She says the ASNV survey found 43 percent of the respondents said a name change would have no effect on their decision to join, 23 percent said it would have some impact one way or the other but 29 percent said it would make them somewhat or much more likely to join.

“The younger and minority respondents felt more strongly about changing the name and we need all hands on deck as we look to the future,” Lyons says. “We need to build an intergenerational and intercultural bridge. Nature belongs to everyone.” 

Blackburn says the current membership of Audubon is old and white. “If the average age of an Audubon member is 70, we need other people to support it. We need to look forward five-to-10 years to how we continue to thrive. The demographics of Northern Virginia has changed dramatically in the last few years.” 

Connie Ericson, a ASNV Board Member from Arlington says, “I’ve been an Audubon member for a lot of years, and I’m sad to see the name go. It was synonymous with conservation. But all of the information that has come out in the last few years about James Audubon and with so many people in favor of changing the name, it was inevitable.” 

She says there were some pretty strong opinions in both directions. She speculates that we live in a diverse area, very urbanized, and it might be a different decision in some of the smaller rural chapters.

Bill Young, a well-known local bird watcher from Arlington who has co-created an extensive website of Monticello Park in Alexandria says, “I actually was indifferent and it wouldn’t upset me to leave the name. But of the two arguments, changing it was a little stronger. I don’t understand how young people think but if they are upset by the name I understand.” He says, “Perhaps I’ve been hardened. It’s not a hot button issue for me. There is so much anger all over that I think people are looking for outlets. I’m not sure it translates into action.”

Lyons says, “The most important thing that everyone had in common was they were all on board about the best thing that would help us in protecting birds. With climate change and the rate of development we need all the help we can get to protect birds.”

As they move forward, the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia will reach out to determine a new name for the ASNV chapter which encompasses all of Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties, and portions of Fauquier, Loudoun, Rappahannock and Spotsylvania counties. Lyons said they had already received suggestions for a new name from 100 people, and there is a link in the newsletter for further suggestions.

Lyons says, “We plan to move forward in the next several months. We need to make sure we have a strategy for branding and connecting with people to make this a success. One of the serious concerns is lack of name recognition when we choose a new name for our organization.” She says a number of chapters have chosen a name which combines their geographical location with the words Bird Alliance. The first was Golden Gate Bird Alliance; others include Detroit Bird Alliance and Chicago Bird Alliance. “If we choose one name and galvanize around it, it will be more recognizable.

She speculates the new name should probably contain the word bird and many people believe that the word society has an unfavorable connotation and should be dropped. 

On the other hand, Blackburn says, “We do a whole lot more than watch birds. The name needs to reflect more of our mission.” He says, “There may be another incredibly good name out there we haven’t thought of.”

Lyons says a number of people thought the name change issue was just a nuisance and distracting from other more important work. “But our local chapter is moving forward with a number of exciting initiatives. We are hiring a volunteer coordinator and will continue our Stretch the Parks activities, expanding the number and variety of nature outings and putting up a Spanish channel on our website. I think we’re changing, which is great.”