When you heard the name “Audubon,” what came to mind? A guy who created the authoritative illustrations in Birds of America? Bird sanctuaries? The protection of nature and critters? If so, then you are not woke. If you were woke, something different came to mind.
John James Audubon, for whom the Audubon’s shearwater is named, was an unrepentant slaveholder who opposed emancipation.
But that was merely the start, not the end, of the progressive correction of history to conform it to only those who meet today’s woke virtue.
On Nov. 1, the American Ornithological Society announced that it would be renaming all the birds under its purview that are currently named for human beings. The birds’ new names will reflect the species’ appearance or habitat — some trait associated with the actual bird, in other words, and not with the colonial explorer who first identified it.
This change, which will affect some 150 North American birds, has been a long time coming. Ornithologists and amateur birders alike have long wrestled with the historical nature of bird names bestowed by early collectors. The norms of that era were themselves problematic, as explorers tromped across an already occupied landscape, killing, collecting and naming after themselves thousands of animals and plants that had already been given human names by people who lived more ecologically responsible lives.
Remember when it was only about taking down confederate statues put up in the south in the 1950s to celebrate racism, for we would never destroy history. We would never slide down the slippery slope like the Taliban blowing up ancient statues. And then we did, but the slide had only just begun.
The idea that some of the most beautiful birds in North America still carry those ugly names is objectionable to a lot of us, a scar from the past still enshrined in the present like a Confederate statue installed in a town square or a robber baron’s name gracing a university building. Such monuments represent history, it’s true, and history should not be forgotten. But neither should it be celebrated wholesale, especially when the bigotries and injustices of the past are too often on clear display in our own age.
There is nothing wrong with choosing to name birds for their identifying characteristics, and if that’s the name given, like the Whooping Crane, wonderful. But this is about taking birds whose names have been accepted for centuries and changing them for no reason other than someone’s compulsion to find and eradicate the names of people long dead who fail to live up to woke standards. Which means pretty much everyone except for Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and we’re not too sure about him either.
Picture someone with purple hair sitting alone at night in a dark room searching for any taint about the forgotten person behind a bird name, desperately seeking proof that they went to dinner at the home of a friend whose neighbor had slaves and failed to demand their immediate freedom. Can we possibly allow that person’s name to be “celebrated” by being borne by a bird?
But symbols have always mattered to our species. Like names themselves, they tell us something about who we are, what we value, how we belong to the world. If renaming the birds becomes part of a broad reorientation toward nature itself, it’s a symbolic gesture that could be the start of saving it all. The birds, and us.
Or it’s a symbolic gesture that “could be” absurd hubris wrapped in pink bow of infantile narcissism. Audubon Sanctuaries did more to orient American society toward nature , not to mention preserve nature, than renaming birds could ever do. And yet, when you run out of statues to tear down, you eventually reach bird names for lack of anything worthwhile to demonstrate your righteousness.