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Among the oldest and largest national conservation organizations in the world, the Audubon Society maintains a century-long commitment to protecting birds and other wildlife through a network of state chapters and regional centers. The National Audubon Society sponsors annual Christmas Bird Counts, publishes the definitive Peterson’s Wildlife Guides as well as other books and magazines about nature including the magazine Audubon, and sponsors and actively lobbies for environmental legislation. The Audubon Society also maintains local chapters in each of the fifty states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and nine Latin American nations that promote citizen science, education, and outreach.
The first Audubon Societies were direct descendants of the scholarly American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU), founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in September of 1883. Concerns that professional hunters were bringing many species of birds to the verge of extinction unified the membership the following year, and they began definite actions towards conservation. Identifying the largest portion of the slaughter of birds as supplying the millinery and fashion trade, the AOU members drafted and endorsed a model bird protection law, and encouraged the formation of bird protection societies and antibird-wearing leagues.
In February of 1886, AOU member and publisher George Bird Grinnel used his magazine Forest and Stream to promote the formation of conservation clubs to educate the public and denounce the wearing of bird products. Grinnel also suggested that the clubs be named Audubon Societies, after the famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon (1785-1851). Within a year, Grinnel began publication of Audubon Magazine as the organ of the rapidly growing organization, which already counted 300 local chapters and 18,000 pledged members. But the lack of a central authority and treasury undermined the attempt, the magazine ceased publication after only one year, and this first attempt at a national Audubon movement stalled out.
Although the first effort failed, the purpose and ideals of the Audubon Movement continued, and on February 19, 1896, the cousins Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society with the sole purpose to convince the ladies of fashion in Boston to forgo wearing plumes and other bird products. Their success prompted the revival of Audubon societies across the United States, and with the regularization of dues and a centralized treasury, the Society was able to fund the publication of Bird Lore magazine, a bi-monthly devoted to the study and protection of birds and renamed Audubon Magazine in 1941. Organized at a national level in 1905, the National Audubon Society was highly visible in the key conservation campaigns of the twentieth century, including the passage of protection acts for migratory birds throughout the western hemisphere, species reintroduction, and wilderness protection.
In perhaps its most famous campaign, the National Audubon Society was in the forefront of the fight to ban organochlorine insecticides, especially DDT, in the wake of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). The Society highlighted the connection between the decline in bald eagle populations and the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, and made the banning of DDT a matter of national pride. With many other conservation groups, the Audubon Society was able to claim victory in 1972 when DDT was banned in the United States followed by a dramatic recovery in eagle populations. Faced with stagnant membership numbers and increasing competition from other conservation organizations, the Audubon Society is planning to step back from general environmental advocacy to a more focused emphasis upon community education and building grassroots advocacy for its core issues of wildlife conservation.
- National Audubon Society: “Audubon Online,” www.audubon.org;
- Boudreau, “The Feather Trade and the American Conservation Movement: a Virtual Exhibition From the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History,” Washington, D.C., National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (1999);
- H. Orr, Saving American Birds: T. Gilbert Pearson and the Founding of the Audubon Movement (University Press of Florida, 1992);
- J. Weil, “Death, Dearth and Progressivism: AStudy of the Policies of and Reactions to the National Audubon Society,” (1896-1917: iv, 88 leaves ; 28 cm).