Chicago Audubon Society changes name to Chicago Bird Alliance, distancing chapter from problematic namesake

The Chicago Bird Alliance has taken flight.

The local organization, founded in 1971, announced Friday its new name to replace its former title of Chicago Audubon Society.

The announcement ends a monthslong process for the Chicago chapter in deciding how to distance itself from the legacy of John James Audubon, a naturalist with racist and anti-abolitionist views.

While the chapter will still operate as part of the National Audubon Society, the name “removes one possible barrier in working with different groups,” Executive Director Matt Igleski said Friday.

In rebranding, Igleski said the chapter wanted the name to be “bird forward.”

“Bird conservation should be centered around the birds,” Igleski said. “Why not put the birds first?”

In March, the National Audubon Society board of directors voted to keep its current name after a yearlong re-examination of John Audubon while reaffirming its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“Regardless of the name we use, this organization must and will address the inequalities and injustices that have historically existed within the conservation movement,” wrote CEO Elizabeth Gray in an open letter on the decision.

Chicago’s chapter will continue to operate under the National Audubon Society and keep its signature heron logo.

Chicago joined the Detroit and southern Wisconsin chapters in taking up the name Bird Alliance.

“We’re very proud to be one of the leaders of this movement for a name that is welcoming and inclusive,” Chicago chapter President Judy Pollock said in the joint news release.

The three Midwest chapters had met to discuss names that would meet that goal yet still provide consistency in the region.

Then last month, leaders of the Chicago chapter sent a poll to members, with about 75% of people voting in favor of the Chicago Bird Alliance name, Igleski said. It beat out Birds Connect, a play on the renaming of Seattle’s local chapter.

“People were very in favor. There were not many negative comments,” Igleski said.

Brands such as the Audubon Society are different in that it is fueled by voluntary memberships, not revenue, said James O’Rourke, who studies brands with fraught and racist connections to the past as a business professor at the University of Notre Dame.

The national society cannot control its members, O’Rourke said, so there is little the society can do to prevent the rebranding of local chapters. Though he added that it is a moment for the national brand to listen carefully and see whether the angst is gaining traction.

“It is going to be a source of tension for years to come,” O’Rourke said. “The question for the Audubon Society is: Is Audubon toxic or can we live with who he is?”

The Chicago Bird Alliance organizes engaging programming for the community and advocates for birds and bird-friendly policies, including for the protection of thousands of migrating birds who crash into Chicago skyscrapers each year.

Chicago’s chapter has about 370 members, and there are roughly 400,000 Chicagoland birders with ties to the national society, Igleski said Friday. The group serves the city of Chicago and most suburbs in Cook County.