Why Audubon Magazine Turned Its Spotlight to John James Audubon

It's our job as journalists to ask tough questions, including about the life and legacy of the man behind our name.

John James Audubon didn’t start this magazine. He didn’t even live to know about the organization that publishes it. But he was the inspiration for a whole movement of Audubons, including the National Audubon Society and its hundreds of affiliated chapters, dedicated to appreciating and protecting birds—not to mention countless nature centers, schools, towns, and at least one zoo, state park, and national wildlife refuge.

Audubon’s influence as a naturalist and illustrator of 19th-century birdlife is far-reaching. The beauty of his art, as J. Drew Lanham writes in “What Do We Do About John James Audubon?”, is unparalleled even today. That’s one reason why we ask artists to reimagine plates from Birds of America for The Illustrated Aviary—incorporating Audubon into not just our name but also the magazine’s visual DNA. For our Spring 2021 issue, artist Gizem Vural created a stunning reinterpretation of the Blue Jay. In Audubon’s composition the birds are eating pilfered eggs, and he passes judgment on their actions: “Who could imagine...that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!” he wrote.

The remark carries great irony. Today, it is Audubon’s actions that, in this time of renewed reckoning with systemic racism, are being judged harshly. As Lanham describes in his essay, Audubon was a racist and white supremacist (who played up his own physical “perfection”). Even so, it’s not clear whether Audubon himself was Black or white. Lanham is a birder and ornithologist who is Black, and, through the lens of these dual identities, he weighs the despicable behavior of birding’s greatest icon against the ambiguity of his race and the genius of his art. To accompany Lanhams words, artist Adrian Brandon reimagines Audubon’s art as well—showing what Audubon could or would not see in his single-minded pursuit of birds.

Lanham notes this piece belongs in Audubon magazine, and it does. Our job as journalists is to closely examine words and actions and to ask tough questions, even when that puts our own identity in the spotlight or challenges our parent organization to reexamine its priorities. So what do we do about John James Audubon? Of the many Audubon namesakes, we can speak only for ourselves: We will continue to publish stories about the joy and conservation of birds—the journeys and milestones, the comebacks and discoveries, as seen regularly in our pages—and also, in every issue, lift up demands for equity and justice.

This piece originally ran in the Spring 2021 issue as “The Man Behind Our Name.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.