John James Audubon, the pioneer field biologist who created "The...

John James Audubon, the pioneer field biologist who created "The Birds Of America," is seen in this drawing. Credit: Associated Press

The New York City Audubon Society is shedding its name because of the racism associated with the organization’s naturalist and illustrator namesake, John James Audubon — one of several chapters nationally that are wrestling with a possible name change.

After months of deliberation, the city's urban conservation organization that seeks to protect and conserve birds and their habitat said that connections to Audubon represented a barrier to bringing diverse communities into ornithology.

“While we very much value John James Audubon’s contribution to art and to ornithology, we also found during our assessment process that the name Audubon presented a barrier to getting more people involved,” said Jessica Wilson, executive director of NYC Audubon.

“And that many people, New Yorkers that we are trying to serve, found the name offensive and harmful," she added.

Audubon died in 1851 at the age of 65. His drawings are compiled in "The Birds of America" and his name has been on birding guides for decades. He had bought and sold slaves and was critical of their emancipation.

Wilson said she hopes that by removing the name, the organization can broaden its tent. The organization has initiatives this spring to have outings at public housing and to publish a Spanish-English bird guide.

She said the organization will be taking time and seeking input before coming up with a new name. The chapter will keep its affiliation with the group.

The change comes amid a reckoning on how to handle roads, bridges, Confederate monuments and other sites named for sources of subjugation, including slaveholders.

The National Audubon Society, of which NYC Audubon is a chapter, decided to keep its name, saying earlier this month, “The name has come to represent so much more than the work of one person, but a broader love of birds and nature, and a nonpartisan approach to conservation.”

Several organizational chapters felt differently and sought to change their names, including some in Seattle, Chicago and Portland, Oregon.

On Long Island, there are a handful of chapters. 

John Turner, board member and conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, a North Shore group that encompasses Smithtown and northern Brookhaven, said the name was a topic at their board meeting last week.

“Some [were] thinking that a name change is clearly warranted, given his past history” and others thought the name has “been in existence for so long.”

The chapter decided to create a committee to assess the situation and make a recommendation to the board. The committee is expected to return with a response in the next few weeks to months.

Byron Young, president of the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society, a chapter of the National Audubon Society, told Newsday the board has not considered it and he doesn’t think that they will.

“It comes with a lot of baggage in terms of costs to the small local chapters to change the name,” said Young, citing changes to bank accounts and newsletter heads.

Like the New York City chapter, the chapter is seeking to be more inclusive, he said. But he said his opinion was that it's difficult to parse when the namesake’s actions warrant changing an organization’s moniker.

“If we're going to change names from former slaveholders, what about George Washington?” said Young, who said he is a history buff. “What are we going to do there? This, in my mind, opens up a whole can of worms.”

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