Board announcements and discussions.

The Audubon Legacy, or What’s in a Name

John James Audubon

John James Audubon was an adventurer, naturalist, artist, woodsman, and storyteller. Most of us know him as a great champion of birds who traveled to North America in the early 19th century, with a determination to document all the birds living on this continent.

His legacy is preserved in the National Audubon Society, and in the birds that bear his name – Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole. But Audubon was also a slaveholder, “a man of his time” as the argument goes, and disdainful of the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

His legacy is preserved in the National Audubon Society, and in the birds that bear his name – Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole. But Audubon was also a slaveholder, “a man of his time” as the argument goes, and disdainful of the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

After the National Audubon Society considered changing its name, on March 16th, 2023, they posted the following statement on their website: “The Board of Directors of the National Audubon Society (NAS) today announced that it has decided to retain the name of the organization, after a lengthy process to examine its name in light of the personal history of its namesake, John James Audubon. The decision was made taking into consideration many factors, including the complexity of John James Audubon’s legacy and how the decision would impact NAS’s mission to protect birds and the places they need long into the future. The organization will continue its non-partisan commitment to habitat conservation and climate action, its agenda-setting policy work, and community-building efforts to advance its mission.”

Five Valleys Audubon Society (FVAS) is the Missoula chapter of the NAS. Our chapter formed in 1977 and is one of nine Audubon Society chapters in Montana. We promote the conservation of natural resources through our birding, education, and conservation activities. We are committed to our mission:

  • Encouraging the enjoyment of wildlife and our natural heritage.
  • Educating others about wildlife and the need to live in harmony with nature.
  • Advocating actions that favor wildlife and environmentally sensitive uses of resources.
  • Supporting research on wildlife and the environment.
  • Sharing and supporting the values and objectives of the National Audubon Society.

Several FVAS Board members wrote thoughtful comments reflecting their views about changing the chapter’s name. I compiled these comments for the Board to discuss at our April Board meeting. Some Board members believe we must change our name eventually, some members do not share that belief, and others are undecided. It is a critical issue to discuss, no matter what we ultimately decide. I have included comments from Board members in this article that reflect the issues and feelings expressed:

“While the name has primarily been associated with birds and the beauty of birds for many decades, that just is not so anymore. As the full history of John James Audubon has come to light, the name is now associated with racism. While National Audubon and Montana Audubon have decided not to change their names, I think it is only a matter of time before they do. Our country is increasingly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Let’s not wait to change the Five Valleys Audubon Society (FVAS) name until we feel social pressure to do so. Let’s be bold and proactive by coming up with new names that reflect the group’s current values and that are respectful of the entire community.

Even if the Audubon name isn’t deterring anyone from joining FVAS currently, it may in the future, especially as we continue efforts to attract more young people. Words matter. Our name matters. If even just a handful of people in Missoula associate the Audubon name with racism, why not take this simple step forward? By changing the FVAS name, we will demonstrate our commitment to building an inclusive birding and conservation community and our ability to meet the community’s needs.”

    “It surprises me that NAS decided to keep the Audubon name while having recently developed programs targeted to young, urban populations (read ethnic minorities and people of color). My gut feeling is to gradually move towards changing our name, but to what? I like that Seattle Audubon has dropped the Audubon moniker, with a changed logo, while still working out an alternative name. This does seem like a process to undertake over time; in the meanwhile, it’s best to learn facts and other background info.”

    “FVAS has the opportunity to support a welcoming and inclusive birding community in Missoula. Whether or not FVA decides to change the name of the chapter at this time, I think it’s important to prioritize considering what future generations of birders and environmental stewards look like and understand how we can encourage their participation in the organization in order to maintain the FVAS mission for years to come.”

    “I submit the following thoughts concerning the question of changing our organization’s name:

    • To do so would be to forfeit a substantial weight of goodwill, which in business accounting refers to the value of an organization’s patronage, reputation, and the like, beyond its tangible assets. In the case of the Audubon name, that value is considerable: over a century’s worth of instant recognition as the oldest, most reliable, most trustworthy, most focused organization exclusively devoted to the conservation and appreciation of birds.
    • I suggest that after 110 years, the Audubon name in almost everyone’s mind has lost all reference to Audubon the man, and instead calls up for most of us the image of an organization of bird-lovers devoted whole-heartedly to birds, their beauty and their welfare. As with many names (such as Washington D.C., Washington State, etc), while the naming may have been originally intended to honor the namesake, over time it has lost virtually any reference at all to the historical person, and instead has evolved into the label for the entity named, and its characteristics and values.
    • What problem would we be addressing with a name change? Slaveholding – the fault we find in Audubon the man – is not the issue. The question of slavery in this country was settled 160 years ago – and not by any name-change, but by the deaths of 600,000 young men in the Civil War. Certainly, though, the vestiges of slavery remain. However, I don’t believe they taint our organization. In my experience, Five Valleys is as open and welcoming a group as anyone could wish. We almost beg people to join us. And I wonder if there is evidence that even one person, in this community or elsewhere, has been offended by our name during the nearly 50 years of our existence. If not, perhaps we ought to refrain from fixing what isn’t broken.
    • Are we nevertheless anxious about “affirming Audubon’s legacy?” A legacy refers to the primary inheritance we receive from a dead person, not to every aspect of his or her life. In Audubon’s case, that legacy is clear: his bird paintings and his prescient sense of the need for bird conservation. Accepting that legacy does not mean endorsing every aspect of the man’s life, whether it be his tendency toward excessive self-promotion, his profligate use of the shotgun, or his ownership of slaves in the 19th century. It’s unclear what changing our name would do for bird conservation, which is our mission. In that connection, I would suggest that our members pay their dues, and our donors direct their sometimes very substantial gifts to us in the expectation that we will use our resources to help birds–not engage in social commentary, or even social reform. Saving birds–and their (and our) earth–is becoming a gigantic, a nearly impossible, task. Let’s focus on that–as the many organizations going by the name of Audubon always have.”

    “I certainly condemn racism and the culture that allowed slavery to exist, as I think our Chapter should do as well. However, I don’t believe that condemning individuals from the past by denying their name will significantly help in diminishing racism. We need to look to the present not the past in identifying and condemning institutions that allow and support racism. If we focus on individuals who in the past believed in slavery, we also need to do away with all mention of Washington and Jefferson who both held slaves. Five Valleys Audubon is a chapter of the National Audubon Society, a long-standing, well known conservation organization. I believe our Chapter’s ability to accomplish conservation is greatly enhanced by the Audubon name. When we try to influence County and City leaders including elected officials our name containing Audubon gets more attention and respect because of the known conservation mission of the Audubon organization. I fear that eliminating Audubon from our chapter’s name would greatly diminish our ability to promote and influence conservation. I believe it is wise to remain as a chapter of National Audubon and as long as they retain the name Audubon, we should do so also.”

    The Board discussion was passionate, but thoughtful. Heated at times, but respectful. I offer these comments and perspectives for our membership to read and consider. Do we follow the example of the National and Montana Audubon Societies and retain our name for the foreseeable future, or do we begin the process of changing our name, in the not too distant future?

    The Audubon Legacy, or What’s in a Name Read More »

    Heading Elsewhere

    One morning, I had thoughts of taking the canoe out to watch the sunrise from the water. I considered going down to the dock to sit and watch the world. Instead, I pull up a chair to the cabin’s big windows, let the world pass by one step removed.

    The clouds are low and heavy, the air misty. The hour of sunrise comes and goes, barely letting more light in. The world stays gray. Rain begins to patter lightly on the surface of the lake.

    Even in the rain, there is a dark shape out on the water, its formal black and white smudged to shades of grey, a common loon in winter plumage.

    It paddles along, occasionally bending its long neck forward, submerging its head to peer into the depths. And then it dives, slipping under the surface with barely a splash, sinking down, gracefully, headfirst.

    I take its dive as a chance to shove my feet into shoes, put on my coat, and go out, get closer without startling it. I stay on the trail down to the dock because it often seems that water creatures of all types, from the yellow perch off the end of the dock to the various diving birds, can detect my presence from just the vibrations of my feet on the wood planks and respond accordingly. All I want is to get closer, but everything is shy.

    Something I read recently said that loons are found at the beginning of field guides because they are one of the oldest living species of bird. Their bones are denser than those of other birds and it makes take off from the water a laborious affair. A few days ago, I saw a loon fly for the first time. It was low over the water and did not go very far, just far enough to catch up with its companion. The loons I see are just as shy as the mergansers, which do startle into flight, but instead of taking to the air, loons just slip into the water and stay underwater for long enough that I begin to wonder if I missed them, finally emerging again, looking unruffled, much further away.

    Though I don’t see them flying, right now they must be. This is just one more day in a string of maybe ten days that I have seen one or more loons almost every morning, right around this time, just when I need to be leaving for work. The number of loons has varied, up to a group of six, the largest number of loons I have ever seen together. I think I must be witnessing their migration from the lakes across the northern part of the continent where they spend their summers to the coastal areas they overwinter.

    I do not usually see loons more than a couple times each summer. I have seen more loons in the last few weeks than I usually do in a year. This is what I have been holding out for, staying at the cabin far enough into the fall to see something new, learn something new. The world is so full it often seems impossible for my attempts and hopes not to be rewarded.

    I let the rain sprinkle on my face, just like the loon does. We are both moved by the seasons and heading back into town for the winter does not feel so bad when I am not the only one heeding the elements and heading for an easier wintering ground.

    The world is just as full elsewhere, as long as I keep my eyes open.

    Heading Elsewhere Read More »

    An Interview with Sara Scott

    What do bluebirds, puffins, and raptors have in common? Sara Scott!

    Over the past several years, I have been involved with Missoula’s Audubon chapter in a variety of ways. I have gone on field trips, served on the board, and written articles for the newsletter.

    More recently, I was fortunate to become acquainted with Sarah Scott – a scientist who has studied bluebirds in western Montana for the last several years. I thought I would interview Sarah about her research both here in Missoula and recently in Greenland for this month’s contribution to the Audubon newsletter!

    So Sarah, what is the focus of your bluebird field work in Missoula? What are you trying to find out?
    I have been a seasonal banding assistant on Renee Duckworth’s (University of Arizona) long-term field study since 2019. The focal species are Western and Mountain Bluebirds. There are several sites in and around Missoula, comprising over one hundred nest boxes, all of which are monitored for breeding activity during the spring and summer. Nestlings and many adults are banded each year. Tracking the development of the nestlings from egg to fledgling is one of my favorite parts of this field work.

    The questions we try to answer change frequently with each graduate student, but the broad topics of investigation for the study have to do with competition between the two bluebird species and the inheritance of behavior, specifically aggression which has some interesting playback on movement and population density.

    Because conditions in the natural world (e.g. weather) are always flexing and changing on different timescales and vary from season to season, long-term data is crucial to having an accurate portrait of how things are and how things have changed. Dr. Duckworth has banded bluebirds in Montana for 22 years and plans to continue for many years to come.

    What, in your opinion, it the most interesting thing about bluebirds? What sets them apart?
    I think the most interesting thing about bluebirds is the variation in personality! One bird can behave so differently from another under seemingly similar circumstances and that is always fascinating to watch. These populations are also special due to the range overlap between the Western and Mountain species in this part of the country. The interactions between the two species can be very different at sites that are quite close together and seem very similar to the human eye.

    Several of the observations that have been the most surprising and interesting to me during my seasons on the project have been related to territories and competition over nest boxes. For example, this past season a Mountain Bluebird male was hanging out near a nest box that was occupied by an active Western Bluebird pair with a full clutch of eggs and there was an unusual absence of aggression. One other highlight from this past season that comes to mind is the return of an eight-year-old female Western Bluebird!

    How did your interest in bird research begin what got you hooked to this field?
    I was in my last year of undergraduate studies in Biology at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. I was completely unsure of what area I wanted to specialize in, when I got an email about an opportunity to travel to Greenland and study Peregrine Falcons with Dr. Robert Rosenfield. I applied, was accepted to the program, and fell head over heels for birds that summer. Quite the introduction!

    I know you recently got to return to Greenland! What was it like to study birds in such a remote location?
    I did! I was lucky enough to be able to return to Greenland with The High Arctic Institute. It was incredible. The landscape is unlike any other and the visual human presence is so different from what we are accustomed to. I was assisting with breeding bird surveys of several species.

    The High Arctic Institute has been doing these surveys in northwest Greenland, specifically in and around Thule, for several decades. They study 25-30 species in one capacity or another, with some short-term projects and some long- term. For many of these species, the Thule area is the northernmost edge of their breeding range. The arctic is warming significantly faster than the rest of the planet, so changes are more likely to be observed in these populations. The Peregrines in this area, for example, did not breed this far north until about 50 years ago, but their numbers in the region have been increasing over the last 30 years. Monitoring species in extremely remote areas is logistically challenging, so they are often under-studied.

    Having long-term data on these arctic populations is vital, especially as environmental conditions grow unstable.

    The project focused on a variety of species. Many birds we worked with, I had never seen in-person before! We surveyed several species of seabirds that were “lifers” for me. Dovekie, Black Guillemot, and Atlantic Puffin, to name a few! Seeing the enormous cliffside nesting colonies of Thick-billed Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes was one of the most amazing field experiences I’ve had. We also caught and banded two Northern Wheatear fledglings, which was a wonderful surprise.

    How do you think climate change and the loss of glacial ice will impact these birds?
    Birds, like other animals, are being tasked with adapting to an increasingly erratic set of environmental conditions. Some seem to be able to adjust to unexpected changes better than others and we are seeing the effects of this already. One issue of note for the arctic breeders we were monitoring this summer is the change in the type of precipitation they experience when raising young. As conditions warm, there has been a change from snow to rain during the summer and its increasingly common to see heavier rainfalls, which can all be very difficult to cope with for small, downy young birds.

    As this community knows, birds in general are struggling. I have seen in the field how tough they are, but things have not been made easy for them and they need our help, however we can manage to give it.

    So, you are back in Missoula working on a research project with Raptorview. What are you trying to learn?
    Yes, I am back in Montana to help monitor the fall raptor migration! Migration allows us to see how various species of birds are doing (e.g. are there more or less of a certain species flying along a particular migration route this year?). There are many migration stations at various locations in the US that conduct species counts as raptors fly overhead. Some, including Raptorview, conduct banding operations as well. I spent a season at Lucky Peak in Idaho previously and am very excited to observe this epic movement of birds from Montana this year!

    An Interview with Sara Scott Read More »

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