National Audubon Society should change their name because of the woke movement

NEWS AND COMMENT: The news today from the United States, specifically Los Angeles, is that the birds of America and Canada will no longer be named after people because the previous naming of birds after people ostensibly linked to racism and misogyny is no longer acceptable because of the woke movement. And let’s be clear, I am not against the woke movement although I question some of their activities. Essentially the woke movement is good for equality and for supporting outsiders.

John James Audubon after whom the Audubon Society is named. He was a 19th century slave trader. Image credit: see base of article.
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But because there will be a mass renaming of birds – 80 species in all next year – it will be time, as a consequence, to rename the National Audubon Society because John James Audubon was a 19th century slave owner. He was also perhaps America’s best-known ornithologist which is why the society is named after him. And further, a bird is named after him namely the Audubon’s shearwater. This is one of the 80 birds to be renamed next year.

The Times reports today that in 2023, and therefore recently, “progressive naturalists were defeated in attempt to rename the National Audubon Society”. Their objectives were rejected by the society’s Board of Directors. I wonder if they will now have to reconsider because they are certainly out of step with modern thinking.

The problem with this movement is that we are judging people of the 19th century by 21st century standards and attitudes. Is this correct?

And I mention the story on this website because cats hunt birds and the National Audobon Society don’t like it. They have written many articles as far as I can recall criticising the domestic cat and constantly promoting the idea that cats should be confined to the home. They want all domestic cats to be full-time indoor cats. They have an antagonistic attitude towards the domestic cat which I’ve never liked but I understand because they are ornithologists.

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It’s reported that 80 species of bird are associated with controversial historic figures. It’s no longer acceptable as mentioned. Other birds to be renamed will both Townsend’s warbler and solitaire because they are named after John Kirk Townsend who died in 1851. It’s reported that he stole skulls from indigenous graves and he believed that they were racially inferior according to a report in The Times today.

The president of the American Ornithological Society, Colleen Handel, said:

“There is power in a name and some English bird names have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today. Everyone who loves and cares about birds should be able to enjoy and study them freely.”

Colleen Handel

The society intends to make blanket changes rather than going through each bird one by one. The change has been driven in part by a vocal faction who have demanded that historical figures linked with slavery or colonialism the removed from the names of these birds.

The society wants to rename them descriptively with references to their habitat or physical features instead.

The society’s executive director and chief executive, Judith Scarl, said that too many men (I guess they were all men, weren’t they?) had been honoured by having birds named after them.

She added:

“As scientists, we work to eliminate bias in science. But there has been historic bias in how birds are named and who might have a bird named in their honour. Exclusionary naming conventions developed in the 1800s, clouded by racism and misogyny, don’t work for us today.”

Judith Scarl

Picture credit: By John Syme – The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9359700

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Considerations

It is a big step to rename birds across the board like this. There are those who would reject the idea because it is useful to remember the slave trade and the kind of people involved in it. If you rename the birds you are in a minor way erasing the history of the slave trade and I think it is useful to remember it.

Remembering history can help to foster a more respectful and equitable approach to life. It can help to avoid these injustices again. Leaving the names of the birds as they are forces us to address historical injustices. It helps us to promote inclusivity. The birds as they are named become a symbol of injustice and that’s no bad thing because I think humans need constant reminders as we tend to repeat history.

Also, some of these slave trading, high-profile individuals from times past contributed tremendously to society at that time. They might have been excellent scientists contributing in that field.

So removing these names is tricky and the decision should be nuanced. And this appears to be the approach of the directors of the board of the National Audubon Society in refusing to change the name of their society.

The Audubon Naturalist Society

I have just discovered that there is another society named after Audubon namely the Audubon Naturalist Society. It is based in Washington DC and news media more than two years ago reported that the administrators of the society was seeking at that time to distance itself from the controversial 19th-century ornithologist.

They announced at that time that they were going to change its name because of the “pain” caused by John James Audubon. This group holds wildlife centres across Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland. I would suggest that this is another good reason why the National Audubon Society should follow suit.

Review of names could go further

Steve Dudley, 56, who used to run the British Ornithologists’ Union believes that the renaming of animals could go further than the birds as stated above.

He believes it might have an effect worldwide. He said: “I think it’s inevitable, especially in any former colonial areas, that you are going to see [a] review of whether they should be following suit. [Britons] have gone around the world naming birds after kings and queens and other people. It was done in a colonial attitude, which clearly isn’t the prevailing mood today. A lot of the new names will focus on regional connections to local landmarks or on a behavioural basis or on plumage.”

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