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Seattle Audubon Society chapter dropping 'Audubon' from its name

A cormorant sits on a piling with a Washington state ferry, the Space Needle and Seattle skyline in the background.
Tim Durkan
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Tim Durkan Photography
A cormorant along the Seattle waterfront.

The Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society announced that it is dropping "Audubon" from its name because of its association with white supremacy.

There are hundreds of state and local chapters of the National Audubon Society, the nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats, but Seattle Audubon is one of the largest in the country.

Earlier this month, the board voted to change the chapter’s name because the man the organization is named after – illustrator, painter and bird lover John James Audubon, author of the seminal work "The Birds of America" – owned enslaved people and opposed abolition.

J. Drew Lanham, a former board member of the National Audubon Society and a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University, called the move courageous.

Lanham, who has written about Audubon and left the national chapter over concerns the nonprofit was not doing enough about racial equity, says organizations need to grapple with what to do about monuments that represent the worst of humanity. Names are part of that, Lanham said.

Audubon was a “genius artist in many ways but a despicable human being,” Lanham said.

“To excuse inhumane acts as just being in the context of their time is, I think, a lazy excuse,” Lanham continued. “Those are the excuses the privileged tend to lean on when they don’t want to make changes.”

Lanham added that it is particularly important for conservation efforts to strive toward diversity and inclusion because environmental conditions often impact Black, Indigenous and other people of color the most.

A person bundled up in a scarf and jacket with the hood up looks through binoculars with a mask on, two other people and some trees are out of focus in the background.
Sundaes Outside
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Golden Brick Events
Chevon Powell's event production company Golden Bricks organizes events including the Refuge Outdoor Festival and Sundaes Outside to offer inclusive outdoor experiences for Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

Chevon Powell, who five years ago started King County’s Refuge Outdoor Festival, which is specifically geared toward diverse communities, called the decision to change the chapter’s name long overdue.

Powell says those who take up birding will slowly learn about the history and then might think to themselves “oh, actually, this space isn’t for me.”

Powell says without significant changes – such as the stripping of names of white supremacists – “eventually, some folks will be like 'I’m going to step away from this.”

Last year, the Audubon Naturalist Society, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization, announced it, too, would be removing “Audubon” from its name, but it is not affiliated with the National Audubon Society. Seattle Audubon is the first large chapter of the National Audubon Society to signal its intention to change its name.

A painting of two warblers with yellow coloring on a bare branch.
Louis Agassiz Fuertes
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Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Bachman’s Warbler, one of two birds named after the Rev. John Bachman and illustrated here by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, is likely extinct.

Claire Catania, executive director of Seattle Audubon, said discussions about a possible name change at the organization coincided with larger questions about the role of racism in the United States that arose in 2020 as protests over police brutality erupted across the country.

Soon after, dozens of American birding experts launched “Bird Names for Birds,” a campaign to change the names of birds named after white men who perpetuated colonialism and racism. For example, the group has pointed to the need to change the name Bachman’s Sparrow, a bird named after the Reverend John Bachman, a former slave owner.

Catania says the biographies of Audubon and others whom birds are named after have taken their majority white membership by surprise.

Still, she says she hopes other chapters will study the issue and make similar changes.

“It's our hope that by making this public declaration now we can blaze a trail that hopefully will be easier for others to follow,” Catania said.

In the end, Seattle Audubon says its main goal is for more people to feel welcome in spaces dedicated to conservation.

Seattle Audubon plans to hold a listening session on Tuesday, and choose a new name by the end of the year.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station.