Anabelle Parsons, then 6, looks up to the sky with binoculars to watch the Vaux’s swifts fly in during Swift’s Night Out, Sept. 8, 2018 in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Anabelle Parsons, then 6, looks up to the sky with binoculars to watch the Vaux’s swifts fly in during Swift’s Night Out, Sept. 8, 2018 in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Birders struggle with legacy, name of Audubon

Like other chapters, Pilchuck Audubon is weighing how to address the slaveholder’s legacy.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The Pilchuck Audubon Society, this year marking its 50th anniversary in Snohomish County, like other Audubon chapters across the country, is grappling with a name change.

The National Audubon Society and its chapters have used the Audubon name since 1905, in honor of John James Audubon, a famed artist and ornithologist, whose “Birds of America” was published between 1827 and 1838 and featured 435 of Audubon’s life-size watercolors of North America’s birds in realistic detail, setting a standard for wildlife illustration that continues to this day.

But Audubon, known as an avowed racist and a supporter of slavery, also owned and sold slaves during his time in the United States during the 1810s until the 1830s. Audubon owned as many as nine slaves while living in Henderson, Ky., an Audubon society website article says, then sold them in 1819. Audubon acquired more slaves in the 1820s, before selling them and leaving for England in 1830 to complete work on his book.

Audubon also bragged in an account included in one of his books of encountering a family of fugitive slaves in a Louisiana swamp during a hunting trip — Audubon’s paintings were largely based on studies of birds he had shot — and after spending the night at the family’s encampment, took them back to the plantation from which they had escaped, “rendered as happy as slaves generally are in that country,” in Audubon’s words.

Growing unease with Audubon’s past resulted in calls for the National Audubon Society to consider changing its name. In March, the society announced that it would keep its name, but said its affiliated chapters could consider dropping Audubon’s name. The national society, in its announcement, determined that, because of the critical threats to birds today, the society had to remain a “non-partisan force for conservation” and would keep its focus on the organization’s mission.

Other chapters — specifically Seattle, as well as Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C., and Chicago — have either changed their names or are in the process of doing so.

The Seattle chapter, now known as Birds Connect Seattle, presented its new name in March, after announcing it would drop the Audubon name last July.

“The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is antithetical to the mission of this organization and its values,” said Claire Catania, executive director of the Seattle chapter, in a statement.

Like other chapters, Pilchuck Audubon has had similar discussions among its board and membership. The Pilchuck chapter counts about 475 local members in Snohomish County and Camano Island, but also is in contact with some 1,000 local members of the national chapter and subscribers to its magazine and sends a newsletter out to about 2,000 in the region.

Bill Derry, president of the chapter board, said changing the name has been discussed at three board meetings this year and members have been updated through the newsletter. A final vote regarding changing the name is expected at the chapter’s June 6 monthly meeting.

“We were kind of waiting to see what national would do,” Derry said during a recent interview with The Herald Editorial Board, but to date there’s been little support from members or the board to change the name. There were a few adamant comments, he said, from others to keep the Audubon brand.

“We don’t use the name because Audubon was a racist,” Derry said. “We use the name because he was a brilliant artist and ornithologist and arguably did more for birds than anybody in the world in history. That’s what we’re recognizing, but we acknowledge the racist aspects of him.”

Audubon’s racist views and slaveholder past is a problem, Derry said, but the Audubon name has come to represent more than that person.

“It’s a brand, an extremely well-known brand. It would be a big issue if we just called ourselves Pilchuck Birds. It’s like, ‘Who’s that?’ Definitely, the brand is an issue.”

Brian Zinke, the chapter’s executive director, agreed.

“It’s about more than a man; it’s a conservation movement and that’s what we’re proud of. We’re proud of the movement we’ve become,” he said.

Pilchuck Audubon, as it marks its 50 years, has been a movement in the county.

Since its creation during increased interest in environmental issues during the 1970s, in those early years, Pilchuck Audubon was a leading environmental advocate in the county, advising governments and others on land use, water surface management, protections for spotted owl, marbled murrelet and other endangered species, parks and more, Derry and Zinke said.

The chapter was on the original advisory committee for Lord’s Hill Regional Park, and continues its representation there now, and was a key advocate and fundraiser to save an unused chimney at Monroe’s Frank Wagner Elementary, which is an annual roost in summer for Vaux’s swifts. The chimney, out of concerns it could collapse in an earthquake, was threatened with demolition in 2008, but was later strengthened and remains a focus on birders’ attention, bird counts and even a live webcam.

The chapter plans no special events to mark its 50th year, but will include that recognition at all its regularly scheduled events, including its regular field trips, its Christmas bird counts in the Everett-Marysville and Edmonds-South County region, the Birdathon fundraiser this month, the Swift’s Night Out at Frank Wagner on Aug. 20, its Puget Sound Bird Fest in September and its Feast in the Forest celebration in October at Everett’s Forest Park.

More than a social gathering, the bird counts that the chapter promotes and participates in have collected valuable data over the years that are used by researchers, including the Cornell Ornithology Lab in Ithaca, N.Y.

Those bird counts, taken from across the continent, are important to researchers and included in climate reports and surveys of bird populations.

“It’s the longest running community science project, going for 123 years,” Zinke said. “And we’ve been part of it for 40 years.”

Locally the bird counts have allowed local birders to note changes in range for birds, such as Anna’s hummingbirds, which now stay year-round in the region, while noting declines in other species.

And, as part of its work to live past the legacy of one man, the chapter is reaching out to all communities in the county, urban and rural, including a recent field trip to Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center in Carnation with Academia Latina in Lynnwood, Derry said. It’s also working closely with Everett Public Library and Sno-Isle Libraries to present programs on birding, native plants that attract birds and wildlife and more.

“We’d like to reach out to communities and let them know that we want to lead field trips and provide programs for any community,” Derry said.

And with some current vacancies on the board, the chapter is especially interested in attracting new members from the county’s diverse communities, Zinke said.

“For us going forward, it’s more about putting an effort into reaching out to communities we’re not serving or that have been historically under-served and putting more of a focus on that as a way to reckon with the Audubon legacy,” Zinke said.

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