Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University

Opinion: On the Whiteness of Conservation and the Audubon Society

Posted by rdsayler | April 12, 2023
White gyrfalcon painting by John James Audubon
[Painting of two white Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) by John James Audubon. Source: Wikipedia. Photo in Pubic Domain.]


If you enjoy bird watching you’ve probably heard about the controversy over the push to change the name of the National Audubon Society. The Society’s namesake, John James Audubon (1785-1851) was a gifted painter and early naturalist who produced the book, The Birds of America, and painted many beautiful color plates of birds that are treasured by bird lovers everywhere.

However, the man, John James Audubon was also a deeply flawed individual who owned and sold slaves and desecrated Indigenous Peoples’ burial sites by decapitating skeletons and selling the remains for personal profit. 

In today’s world, armed with our knowledge of history, both good and bad, how does one reconcile the gifts of an artist with overt acts of racism and other misdeeds that now pain and emotionally injure so many?

The field of conservation has long been dominated by white society in Europe, the U.K., and North America. That is changing. 

Increasing diversity in the ranks of bird watchers and conservationists around the world is accompanied by the drive to change the names of places, organizations, and even species that now connote memories of a troubling past.

Recently, what used to be the Seattle Chapter of the National Audubon Society changed its name to ‘Birds Connect Seattle’ (see: Seattle Times; see Birds Connect Seattle: A New Name for an Inclusive Future). Some other Audubon chapters around the nation are following suit, however, the Board of Directors of the National Audubon Society recently decided to keep its name for the national organization as is. 

To learn more about the involved controversies, we offer here some useful background information and perspectives by some of the people and groups involved. Rather than speak for them, we encourage you to see what they say in their own words and then consider these in your own thoughts and conclusions.

First, we unabashedly recommend what has become the world’s public encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and its article on John James Audubon. It is an extensive, well-documented article that provides a rather detailed account of his life history and activities at various stages of his life.

Next, to their credit, the National Audubon Society has openly addressed the controversy over their name and announced a major effort on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

The National Audubon Society also openly acknowledged the history of John James Audubon and provided web links to document the negative aspects of his life:

Finally, to voice counter viewpoints from the perspectives of affected individuals, we next turn to J. Drew Lanham who is described as an American author, poet, a conservation ornithologist, and an endowed faculty at Clemson University. He is also a self-described Black birdwatcher (see: personal website).

J. Drew Lanham has published a number of books, including The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts. 

J. Drew Lanham has written extensively on the issues of making conservation more equitable, just, and inclusive and is listed as a contributing writer to Audubon Magazine. The following article there illustrates his writing and thinking:

I also highly recommend his description of a racist encounter in the field while birding:

For those who are able and willing to register with an email, I highly recommend the short opinion piece J. Drew Lanham recently published in The Washington Post:

And so, after all of this information, perspectives, and opinions, what conclusion(s) do we reach? I admit to being curious what you think as you might be about me. But this is a story not yet finished and I’ll tell you the same thing that I tell all of the students and classes that I teach.

It’s not my job to tell you what to think or do. That’s your job. And for everyone’s sake, you need to become good at it. As an educator, my job is to identify and curate information and point out critical issues, uncertainties, moral and ethical dilemmas, and all the complicated ecological, political, economic, and social controversies that need to be addressed for individuals to reach sound and reasoned conclusions and opinions. I certainly have an opinion and if I wanted an editorial, I would write an editorial, but that is not my purpose here, which is rather to explore and inform and allow the voices of those who are affected by these circumstances to speak directly on their own behalf.

And so, perhaps some day we’ll all see what the thousands upon tens of thousands, and millions upon untold millions of bird watchers and bird lovers everywhere ultimately decide. In the end, it likely will be their decision how to proceed and the story undoubtedly will continue.

R. Sayler
WSU School of the Environment

See more stories @ SoE Science News