Birding groups debate migrating from the Audubon name

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John James Audubon.

Library of Congress

John James Audubon.

Capital News Service

LANSING – A National Audubon Society decision to keep its name is bitterly dividing members, some of whom are pressing to distance the organization from namesake John James Audubon, who was an enslaver.

Many Audubon chapters across Michigan are still wrestling with what to do about the name on local levels.

There are more than 30 chapters across the state.

The organization was founded in 1905 and named after America’s most famous naturalist and bird artist, John James Audubon, who died in 1851.

Kirk Waterstripe, a board member of the Grand Traverse Audubon Club in Traverse City, said he learned about the national decision from another member.

He said the local discussion was limited.

“We all agreed that’s how things were done in the 1800s, and we can’t really judge that world by our moral and ethical standards,” he said. 

“We’ve learned from that history. We wouldn’t do it now, but the brand is established,” Waterstripe said.

He said that the Aububon name has become synonymous with birding.

“People see (Audubon) and they associate it with birds,” he said. 

Waterstripe said the Traverse City chapter board will discuss releasing a statement in its newsletter. 

Some National Audubon Society chapters, including ones in Chicago and Seattle, have already put out statements opposed to keeping the ‘Audubon’ name.

In a press release, the Chicago Audubon Society said it will call on the National Audubon Society to change its name and, if that doesn’t happen, the chapter will select a new name. 

The Grand Rapids Audubon Club said in a statement it will keep the name. 

“The Grand Rapids Audubon Club has been monitoring and carefully considering these important conversations that are happening at the local, state and national levels. At this time we will maintain our club name,” the statement said.

Some chapter members say they need more time to think about what to do.

Don Burlett, the president of the Oakland Audubon Society, said it is going to take some time to decide at a local level whether to change its name. 

“We are in discussions, Burlett said. “There is a lot to be considered in the whole decision, but those issues are all being discussed and it may take some time before we make a decision.”

He said the chapter may survey its members to get their opinions and thoughts. 

“For many people, it’s a personal decision as to whether they would want to keep the name or change the name,“ said Burlett. 

If a chapter decides to change its name, it can easily do so. 

“Any organization affiliated with National Audubon is completely free to change their name and it won’t affect the affiliation, ” he said.

At a national level, the process of determining whether to keep or drop the Audubon name took over a year and included consulting with local chapters and staff. 

Three members of the national board resigned in mid-March to protest the majority decision to retain the name.

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