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This bird has flown: Renaming the Audubon Societies to escape a sordid personal history

Birds of a feather flock together, so it’s unsurprising that usual suspects who some would identify as “woke” are urging Audubon Societies across America to change their names. We don’t count ourselves in the you-must-cleanse-a-fallen-society-by-renaming-everything camp — Columbia University should keep its name, despite Christopher Columbus’ complicated but profoundly important legacy — but in this case, the state and local outfits that are rebranding are just in their choice, even while the national Audubon Society stands pat.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a brilliant bird-watcher, naturalist and artist, but he was also a racist who did many bad things. He enslaved Black people and wrote negatively about emancipation. He was credibly accused of academic fraud and plagiarism. His offenses were despicable, the Audubon Society has asserted, “even by the standards of his day.” 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 to many an unfortunate and distracting albatross around the neck of an alliance of feathered friends.

To those who’d say such a standard argues for the removal of any trace of, say, Teddy Roosevelt from, say, the American Museum of Natural History, no: TR’s statue sin was sitting on a horse, besides two companions on foot. Which reminds us that there is a giant statue of Audubon on the top of the same museum. Is he coming down? With Audubon, the name of a very accomplished man with profound moral failings has become interchangeable with birds. If birders want to change, so be it.

So you’ll read no complaints here about the local Audubon Society choosing to drop his name from its name, even as the national organization hangs on. Times change; not every name needs to remain fixed in place, especially when the life and values of a particular individual seem contrary to those now connected with an institution. Good riddance to Confederate place-names, good riddance to Yale’s Calhoun College, good riddance to the Audubon Society of New York City.

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