North Fork Audubon Society decides against name change

Like many local chapters of the 119-year-old National Audubon Society, the North Fork branch recently considered changing its name to distance itself from its namesake, John James Audubon, an enslaver and anti-emancipator. At a membership meeting held Tuesday evening, however, president Peggy Lauber announced that the local chapter is keeping its name as is.

Ms. Lauber said that the board took the issue very seriously, and the process focused on hearing from its membership, whose demographics, she said, reflect those of the broader community. Ellen Birenbaum, board member and head of the governance committee that oversaw the possible name-change, began by emailing its 194 members an article she wrote to inform them about Mr. Audubon’s history. 

“We then sent two notices asking members for their comments,” Ms. Lauber said in a telephone interview before the announcement. “We want to thank everyone who submitted their thoughts,” which she described as “considerate, thoughtful and respectful.” 

After sifting through the comments, Ms. Birenbaum and board members tallied the responses and found that at least two-thirds of the members wished to keep the name. The board itself then voted, choosing to follow the wishes of the majority its members.

That decision also follows the national organization’s position. In a statement published in March 2023, the board of directors of the National Audubon Society announced its decision to retain the name of the organization.

“Based on the critical threats to birds that NAS must urgently address and the need to remain a non-partisan force for conservation,” the statement read, “the Board determined that retaining the name would enable NAS to direct key resources and focus towards enacting the organization’s mission.” 

That same spring, the New York City chapter — NYC Audubon — announced its intention to drop “Audubon” and adopt the name NYC Bird Alliance. That change becomes official this month. 

According to NYC Bird Alliance, chapters in 22 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to change names, with many also swapping “Audubon Society” for “Bird Alliance.”

NYC Bird Alliance went even a step further by outlining the name change process on its website for any other chapters considering a switch.

“We embarked on a collaborative and robust process to select a new name that encapsulates who we are and what we do,” the website states, “and that is inclusive and welcoming to all New Yorkers.”

In lieu of a name change, the national organization is addressing diversity concerns by committing $25 million to expanding Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (EDIB) initiatives over the next five years. In 2023, the group appointed Lisette Martinez as chief EDIB officer.

Ms. Lauber said the North Fork Audubon Society is following suit through community outreach and by updating the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion statement on its website. She said much of their signage is written in English and Spanish, as are available bird guides, and that even as recently as Memorial Day weekend, a Spanish-speaking board member reached out to families fishing at Orient Beach State Park. 

Susan Bell, chair of the National Audubon Society’s Board of Directors, said in a statement, “The name has come to represent so much more than the work of one person, but a broader love of birds and nature, and a non-partisan approach to conservation. We must reckon with the racist legacy of John James Audubon and embody our EDIB values in all that we do. In doing so, we will ensure that Audubon stands for an inclusive future in which we unite diverse coalitions to protect birds and the places they need.” 

Ms. Lauber followed similar thinking, saying the group wants to remain focused on its mission: connecting people with nature. 

“Birds don’t have a voice of their own,” she said, “so we want to be their voice.”