Chicago Audubon Society changing to Chicago Bird Alliance in a refutation of slaveholder John James Audubon

The bird conservation organization’s leaders join other groups after grappling with the legacy of “a historical figure aligned with systemic racism.”

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A bird on a branch near McCormick Place Lakeside Center.

The Chicago Audubon Society is changing its name to distance itself from John James Audubon, the namesake of Audubon societies.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

The Chicago Audubon Society will soon become the Chicago Bird Alliance.

Leaders of the bird conservation organization decided to adopt a new name after grappling with the legacy of John James Audubon, the namesake of Audubon societies even though he wasn’t their founder.

Audubon was a well-known early American birdwatcher and a wildlife artist during the 1800s who created “The Birds of America,” a collection of 435 life-size prints of various bird species.

He also was a slave owner who opposed emancipation and was accused of academic fraud and plagiarism, stealing human remains and sending human skulls to “a colleague who used them to assert that whites were superior to non-whites,” according to the National Audubon Society.

Two other bird groups in the Midwest also are changing their names. The Detroit Audubon and Madison Audubon will become the Detroit Bird Alliance and Badgerland Bird Alliance.

“Our chapters believe that bird conservation should center birds and collaboration rather than celebrate a historical figure that is aligned with systemic racism,” said Judy Pollock, president of the Chicago organization. “We are happy to be part of a new group of chapters using this name.”

“Our approach has always been to bring nature and people together in a way that serves both,” said Gretchen Abrams, executive director of the Detroit group. “It was important for us to collaborate with other Audubon chapters — especially those in our region — in adopting a name that unifies our members and unifies us as organizations.”

The three organizations will continue to be affiliated with the National Audubon Society, which announced in March that it would retain the Audubon name.

The three new Bird Alliance groups are following other Audubon groups that changed their names.

The Golden Gate Bird Alliance, based in the San Francisco Bay area, dropped Audubon from its name in August. Seattle’s chapter, the first to pursue a name change, was renamed Birds Connect Seattle in March.

“When you recognize John James Audubon’s environmental legacy, you also have to grapple with his full legacy,” said Matt Reetz, executive director of the Badgerland Bird Alliance executive director. “After talking to community members and partners and listening to our members, we learned that, for some groups, Audubon simply meant ‘birds’ — but, for many others, it meant harm.

“It’s not enough to just put an asterisk next to the name. We needed to have our name promote our work: bird conservation that includes everyone.”

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