National Audubon Society Is Established

The uniting of state Audubon Societies into a national organization gave vitality and permanence to the infant bird-protection movement in the United States.

Summary of Event

The National Audubon Society was established in 1905 to provide protection for the U.S. bird population. The society was named for John James Audubon, a nineteenth century hunter and painter of American birdlife. Audubon’s major contribution to the work of the National Audubon Society is his artistic and scientific record of the American wildlife of his time. The concept of bird protection, however, which is at the heart of the National Audubon Society, was completely unknown to him, as the sheer number of birds on the American continent during the nineteenth century prevented any realization of the need for their protection. National Audubon Society
Audubon Societies
Wildlife conservation
Birds, protection
[kw]National Audubon Society Is Established (Jan. 5, 1905)
[kw]Audubon Society Is Established, National (Jan. 5, 1905)
National Audubon Society
Audubon Societies
Wildlife conservation
Birds, protection
[g]United States;Jan. 5, 1905: National Audubon Society Is Established[01230]
[c]Environmental issues;Jan. 5, 1905: National Audubon Society Is Established[01230]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 5, 1905: National Audubon Society Is Established[01230]
Audubon, John James
Grinnell, George Bird
Dutcher, William
Chapman, Frank
Pearson, T. Gilbert
Bradley, Guy

Audubon’s home on the Hudson River had significant influence on the development of Audubon Societies across the United States. It was there that Audubon collected the trophies of his bird-hunting expeditions. The home became the center of Audubon Park, later a major residential area of New York City.

The most important name in the founding of the bird-protection movement in the United States is that of George Bird Grinnell. Like Audubon, Grinnell was a hunter. He was also a naturalist, an explorer, and the publisher of a hunting and fishing magazine called Forest and Stream. Forest and Stream (magazine) Unlike Audubon, Grinnell became greatly alarmed by the wanton slaughter of birds in the United States, which was undertaken primarily to collect skins and plumage. He feared the total destruction of many valuable species.

A connection between Audubon and Grinnell was established in 1857, when Grinnell’s family moved to Audubon Park. Lucy Audubon, widow of the painter, still lived in the house filled with the mementos of her husband’s work. She operated a school in her home for the children of the area, which was several miles north of New York City; Grinnell attended the school as a boy. The time he spent in the home of John James Audubon stimulated Grinnell’s fascination with wildlife, but his interest was oriented toward hunting rather than preservation. He saw many of the artifacts of Audubon’s expeditions, including boxes full of bird skins. Boys at the school often spent their free time trying to kill birds, especially passenger pigeons, in the woods and along the banks of the Hudson River. The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America, possibly in the world, with numbers estimated in the billions. In 1813, Audubon recorded seeing a flock that took three days to pass. A century later, in 1914, the last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Extinction;passenger pigeon

After receiving a degree from Yale in 1870, Grinnell took part in several expeditions to the West before becoming editor and publisher of the weekly Forest and Stream. Although he continued the magazine’s format devoted to hunting and fishing, Grinnell began inserting strong editorials about the abuse of wildlife, especially the wholesale killing of game for restaurants and hotels.

In 1883, the American Ornithologists’ Union American Ornithologists’ Union was formed and became a part of the bird-protection movement. Grinnell joined the organization, which added a professional aspect to the movement, addressing such questions as the economic importance of birds and the role of birds in ecology.

In February, 1886, Grinnell launched a campaign for a private organization that would work for the preservation of American birds. In an editorial in Forest and Stream, he proposed calling the organization the Audubon Society, for John James Audubon, whom he still greatly admired. Membership in the society was to be free to all who would work for the following goals: to prevent the killing of wild birds except for food, to protect the nests and eggs of wild birds, and to prohibit the use of feathers on clothing and hats.

Grinnell’s infant society existed entirely on paper, first in Forest and Stream, and then in 1887 in the Audubon Magazine, a new publication produced by Grinnell. Initial enthusiasm for the society was widespread, but the members were neither willing nor able to take concrete action. Grinnell did not have adequate resources to support the society, and, after two years, realizing that the society was not going to be effective, he gave up. The December, 1887, issue of the Audubon Magazine marked the end of both the magazine and the society.

In spite of this failure, Grinnell had laid the foundation for a strong bird-protection movement in the United States. The movement experienced rapid growth in the succeeding years, and in 1896 states began establishing their own Audubon Societies. Massachusetts led the way, followed by nine other states and the District of Columbia. Each of these societies, and the others that came later, has its own unique history.

The next significant leader of the Audubon movement was William Dutcher, a wealthy New York City businessman. New York was the center of the millinery industry, the strongest opponent of bird-protection laws. Dutcher began a national campaign to outlaw the slaughter of the birds that supplied feathers for the millinery industry. One result of his efforts was the Lacey Act, Lacey Act (1900) passed by Congress in 1900, which sought to limit interstate trade in bird plumage.

By 1901, thirty-six autonomous Audubon Societies were operating in the United States. That year saw the first attempt to give a unified direction to the movement. At Dutcher’s urging, a loose federation was formed and named the National Committee of the Audubon Societies of America. Additional direction was provided by the Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, and by Bird-Lore, a publication founded by Frank Chapman in 1899. In 1940, Bird-Lore was renamed Audubon.

The Florida Everglades became one of the most bitter battlegrounds between bird hunters and bird protectionists. It was there that, on July 8, 1905, the murder of Guy Bradley, a game warden working closely with Dutcher and Chapman, created the first martyr for the Audubon movement. Two similar murders occurred in 1908.

The work of Grinnell, Dutcher, Chapman, and many others came to a climax on January 5, 1905, when the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals was incorporated in New York City. Grinnell was a member of the board of directors, Dutcher was the president, and Chapman was the treasurer. Later, the organization was renamed the National Audubon Society.


During its early years, much of the success of the National Audubon Society can be credited to the efforts and energy of T. Gilbert Pearson. Pearson was the first secretary of the national organization, and he became its primary troubleshooter. As local issues developed involving the state societies, Pearson offered advice and support from the national association. A New Jersey assemblyman, for example, introduced a bill in his state’s legislature to declare the mourning dove a game bird, with an open season between August 15 and October 1. Many of the assemblyman’s constituents were glassblowers, and the sole reason for the bill was that glassblowers were on vacation between August 15 and October 1, and they wanted something to shoot during that time. With Pearson aiding the opposition, the bill was defeated.

To combat the killing of plume birds, the National Audubon Society advocated the use of ostrich feathers, which could be gathered without causing the deaths of the ostriches. In the late nineteenth century, William Dutcher had encouraged ostrich farming to provide the needed quantity of feathers, and ostriches were imported from South Africa in 1882. By 1900, there were about three thousand ostriches on farms in California, Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, and North Carolina. Meetings of local Audubon societies displayed “Audubon millinery,” with hats adorned with ribbons and ostrich feathers. The ostrich farms did not produce enough feathers to meet the demands of the millinery industry, however, and Dutcher had to turn to other means of accomplishing Audubon goals.

By 1908, the national association’s hopes of achieving its aims seemed more distant than ever. The opponents of bird-protection laws were launching attacks on every front. Dutcher, Pearson, and other national Audubon leaders found themselves rushing from state to state to help the individual Audubon Societies combat a succession of bills to legalize the killing of birds for sport, for feathers, or simply to eliminate undesirable species, such as English sparrows.

When Dutcher’s ability to work was ended by a stroke in 1910, Pearson became the driving force of the Audubon movement. With a small and poorly paid New York City staff, he was able to keep the national society active until broader support brought the separate state societies closer together.

Gradually, the goals of the Audubon Society gained the support of such political leaders as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it was an educational program that eventually brought Audubon goals closer to fruition. George Bird Grinnell had recognized the value of enlisting children into the movement. Later Audubon presidents, such as John Baker (1944-1959) and Carl Buchheister (1959-1967), enhanced the educational program to reach the general population of the United States. Baker’s most valuable asset was Roger Tory Peterson, Roger Tory Peterson who is often given credit for making birdwatching a national pastime. Peterson was reared in Jamestown, New York, where a seventh-grade teacher aroused his interest in birds and brought him into a Junior Audubon Club. This teacher also discovered Peterson’s talent for drawing. Baker, who tried to lure professionals into the national association, secured Peterson’s artistic services.

Baker’s years as president of the organization also marked its transition from an association to a true National Audubon Society. Buchheister, who replaced Baker as president in 1959, greatly enhanced that national image through education and membership, which stood in excess of thirty thousand at that time.

The growth of the environmental movement accelerated during the 1970’s, and the Audubon Society was particularly pleased about the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. In the 1980’s, under the leadership of its eighth president, Russell W. Peterson, the Audubon Society began international environmental advocacy. In 1987, Audubon boasted five hundred chapters. In 1990, the society participated in the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the International Biodiversity Treaty was drafted.

Despite its uncertain beginning in 1905, the National Audubon Society had profound impacts on conservation in general and on bird protection in particular. Beginning with the Lacey Act in 1900, the U.S. Congress and individual state legislatures passed many bird-preservation laws. Bird plumage ceased to be a major element of the clothing and millinery industries. Many Americans came to admire birds more for their grace and beauty than for their flesh and feathers. In the twenty-first century, the National Audubon Society remains a vocal supporter of national and international environmental causes. National Audubon Society
Audubon Societies
Wildlife conservation
Birds, protection

Further Reading

  • Audubon, John James. Audubon, by Himself. Edited by Alice Ford. New York: Natural History Press, 1969. Audubon’s own writings, selected to give a broad view of his life and experience. Emphasizes Audubon’s expeditions to various parts of North America.
  • Buchheister, Carl, and Frank Graham. “From the Swamps and Back: A Concise History of the Audubon Movement.” Audubon 74 (January, 1973): 4-45. Provides excellent historical information on the early years of the society. Includes photographs.
  • Doughty, Robin. Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Discusses the widespread use of bird plumage in fashions, the early debate over the plumage trade, and the opposition to that trade. A helpful appendix lists milestones in British and American bird protection from 1868 to 1922. Also includes lists of protected and unprotected birds during that era.
  • Graham, Frank. The Audubon Ark: A History of the National Audubon Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Comprehensive history of the Audubon movement, with good coverage of the work of the individuals who have served as presidents of the National Audubon Society.
  • _______. Man’s Dominion: The History of Conservation in America. New York: M. Evans, 1971. Presents a view of conservation and bird protection far beyond the scope of the National Audubon Society. Includes an interesting chapter on the work and murder of Guy Bradley and surveys the work of other game wardens, especially those seeking to enforce bird-protection laws.
  • Grinnell, George Bird. The Passing of the Great West: Selected Papers of George Bird Grinnell. Edited by John Reiger. New York: Winchester Press, 1972. Details Grinnell’s life in New York City and his travels in the West, including his exploration of the Black Hills with General George Custer in 1874. Chapter 1 explores the influence of Grinnell’s early years in Audubon Park. Includes photographs.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.
  • Mitchell, John. “A Man Called Bird.” Audubon 89 (March, 1987): 81-104. Presents a comprehensive view of the Audubon movement in general and George Bird Grinnell in particular. Describes Grinnell’s interests as a sportsman, scientist, publisher, pioneer conservationist, and advocate of bird preservation.
  • Schorger, W. A. The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. 1973. Reprint. Caldwell, N.J.: Blackburn Press, 2004. Well-researched and well-documented account explains clearly how a species can be brought to the brink of extinction.

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