FAQs About Portland Audubon Decision to Change the Name Audubon

Read our full statement on the name change here.

Who was John James Audubon and how is he tied to Portland Audubon?

It’s not commonly known that John James Audubon had nothing to do with the founding of the first Audubon societies, nor with Portland Audubon. In fact, he died 51 years before Portland Audubon was founded. One of the founders of the first Audubon Society, George Bird Grinnell, decided to use the name Audubon based on his time being tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James Audubon’s widow. Grinnell valued Audubon’s stature and noted contributions to the understanding of avian natural history, most famously through his book The Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size bird prints. That name stuck as the Audubon chapters around the country began to emerge.

Great Blue Heron landing
Great Blue Heron, photo by Scott Carpenter

Why change your name?

If you’ve been following our work, you’re aware that Portland Audubon’s commitment to equity and racial justice continues to grow through our programs, partnerships, and the evolution of our internal culture. That the name Audubon celebrates a slaveholder who upheld white supremacist systems goes against that ethic and commitment. 

We have heard from many staff, volunteers, and community members who are people of color, specifically Black, that it’s painful to bear the name of a slaveholder at the place where they work or volunteer, or to wear a shirt with our name on it. Our goal is to create an inclusive and welcoming organization and community for everyone, and retaining the name Audubon is a major obstacle to that work.

How can you judge a historical figure by modern standards? 

While slavery was common during his lifetime in some cultures, many people and institutions in the 1800s opposed slavery and took part in the abolition movement. John James Audubon would have been exposed to abolitionist views and yet he owned and sold slaves and remained in favor of slavery. John James Audubon’s legacy of racism and harm didn’t stop at slavery. He also stole Native American skulls to send to a colleague who used them to argue that white people were superior to people of color.

However, even if John James Audubon were a product of his time, his views and actions are not in line with our beliefs now. We get to choose who we want as our namesake, or if we want to name ourselves after a person at all, and John James Audubon doesn’t align with our values or commitment to racial equity.

Are you participating in cancel culture?

We can value John James Audubon’s contributions as an artist and naturalist without bearing his name as part of our organizational identity.

Does that mean you’ll leave the Audubon network?

The Audubon network is made up of more than 450 individual chapters, including National Audubon Society. We have no plans to leave the network, which is a powerful system of organizations with similar goals. We regularly work with our 11 sister chapters across the state, with other statewide chapters, and with National Audubon Society to advance our conservation agenda. Regardless of our name, we plan to maintain those relationships and stay a chapter within the network.

Won’t you lose name recognition and the brand awareness that comes with the name Audubon?

Rebrands and renaming processes happen all the time. We hope that National Audubon Society will decide to change their name to something all chapters can also adopt. That would also help provide brand recognition and unity around the country. However, if they choose not to, we’ll launch a renaming process of our own that prioritizes community input, and change our name to something we can be proud of. 

For people in the birding community, the name Audubon is heavily associated with birds. But we hear all the time from many people that the name Audubon doesn’t mean anything to them. By changing our name, we can also adopt something that helps reflect who we are and what we do to everyone.

What is your new name?

We hope National Audubon Society does the right thing and decides to change their name, allowing the chapters to all rebrand together. However, if National Audubon Society decides not to change their name, we’ll launch a renaming process and find a name that reflects who we are and what we stand for. We look forward to seeking input from all our members, volunteers, donors, partners, communities of color, and the larger community.