John James Audubon, biologist, renowned bird artist of his time...

John James Audubon, biologist, renowned bird artist of his time and author of "Birds Of America." He also owned slaves, which has sparked controversy among the societies that bear his name.  Credit: AP

A campaign popular among city birding societies to ditch the name Audubon over the 19th century ornithologist namesake’s proslavery views is getting a less enthusiastic reception in suburbs like Long Island.

Last week, NYC Audubon changed its name to NYC Bird Alliance after similar announcements by sister chapters in Washington, D.C., Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and in smaller places like Ravalli County, Montana. The National Audubon Society, founded in 1905, has decided not to change its name, but about 10% of about 400 affiliate chapters nationwide have chosen to find other names, said NYC Bird Alliance executive director Jessica Wilson.

There has been no dash to rename Audubon chapters on the Island. It’s under consideration by some of the Island’s birders.

Some have rejected the idea. Some haven’t talked about it at all.

Those who want the organization to be renamed argue that John James Audubon, a French American artist and naturalist, was a slave owner and opponent of abolitionism and that retaining the name alienates potential birders.

“Although he was an accomplished artist and an important naturalist, his views and his actions 200 years ago were harmful to people of color and Indigenous people, and even 200 years later they remain harmful,” said Wilson, who likes hawks, eagles and owls. “That Audubon name stands in the way of our engaging everybody in appreciating birds and taking action to protect them.”

Separately, “to address past wrongs,” the American Ornithological Society is renaming all birds named for people, on the grounds that the namesakes could be offensive.

Proponents of keeping Audubon say he was a man of his time, that his interests in birds and art helped catalyze a pictorial record of all bird species on the continent, and that renaming the organization wastes money that could be spent on birding and conservation.

The Four Harbors Bird Alliance, which covers from Sunken Meadow State Park to Shoreham, then south to the Long Island Expressway, is reaching out to its membership on the renaming issue, said Joy Cirigliano of Kings Park, the chapter’s conservation chair and a past president. She personally favors finding a new name but says she would follow the membership’s views.

“We’re getting mixed reviews: ‘Yes, we should. No, we shouldn’t,' said Cirigliano, whose favorite birds are the hummingbird and the Wood thrush.

When the National Audubon Society was deliberating removing “Audubon,” the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society also considered a name change but ultimately decided to stick with it, said chapter president Byron Young of Ridge.

Unlike the New York City chapter, which has paid staff, Young’s chapter, which covers from eastern Brookhaven to Montauk and across Riverhead to Long Island Sound, is all volunteer.

“We chose not to change our name because of all of the other things that go along with changing a name,” said Young, whose favorite birds include the osprey, waterfowl and Warblers. “We would have to change our name on all of our bank accounts, all of our documentation. It just was a lot of work.” 

The Great South Bay Audubon Society, which covers from Babylon to Patchogue, hasn’t discussed the matter, said chapter president Jody Banaszak of Blue Point, but she expected the topic to come up at Thursday night’s meeting. She doesn’t expect the name to be changed.

With Maureen Mullarkey

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