3. 1895 to 1970: The Conservation Era
Audubons Pioneer Activists
In the Nineteenth Century, the scientific study of life on earth was mostly an avocation for the wealthy. John James Audubon retired to his country home in upper Manhattan in the 1840s, after a life of producing bird portraits that married science and art. Theodore Roosevelts original career goal was to become a naturalist, and his first publication was a guide to the birds of Franklin County. In the Twentieth Century, however, the life sciences emerged and matured in the nations universities. The professional scientists and philosophers who were concerned with plants, mammals, birds, insects, and ecosystems became heroes and leaders for the enthusiastic amateurs who were sworn to protect nature. At the turn of the century, this alliance produced the Audubon Society. In mid-century, it produced the Nature Conservancy. Both groups were born and raised in New York.
In the 1880s, some members of the American Ornithological Union (AOU) became increasingly concerned about the wholesale slaughter of wild birds for commercial use. Egrets and other wading birds were being massacred for their plumage. Commercial expeditions killed hundreds of ducks and other migrating birds for restaurant use or even just for sport, leaving their bodies to rot. Species such as the passenger pigeon were wiped out, while others like the Eskimo curlew were facing extinction. No laws existed to stop the shooting. In 1886, George Bird Grinnell, a big-game hunter, Manhattan resident, and editor of the magazine Forest and Stream, was motivated to act. He established the Audubon Society for the protection of wild birds, and in three months 38,000 people had joined. Most of the first members were activists associated with scientists at the AOU or the American Museum of Natural History.
Grinnell could not afford to support the new group and he disbanded it in 1888. But it began again in Boston in 1896, at the urging of a wealthy matron named Harriet Hemenway. A New York Chapter was formed in 1897, along with independent chapters in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and other states, and the activist coalition worked to pass a "model law," drafted by the AOU, banning the use of plumes in womens hats. Not all members of the AOU endorsed the groups actions, however. The more conservative scientists found the Audubon leaders brash and confrontational. Some Audubons were even opposed to any killing of animals, and in 1900 the study of animals usually involved killing them.
Because the hat-making and garment industries were based in New York City, much of the plumage trade came in and out of that port, and Audubons early activities were centered there. In 1904, a wealthy New York insurance executive named Albert Willcox contacted William Dutcher, chair of the AOUs Bird Protection Committee. Willcox offered to pay for a staff and an office, and to leave at least $100,000 in his will, if Audubon would incorporate and expand its activities to the protection of wild animals. In 1905, the existing 35 state clubs incorporated as the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals, with headquarters in Manhattan. Dutcher was named the first Audubon President. By 1913, the society had a staff of six in a building at 66th street and Broadway.
Under the direction of President Gilbert Pearson, the Audubon Society pioneered three central activities of the modern environmental protection movement.  First, Audubon hired private game wardens to keep hunters away from important wildlife habitat. Their first wardens were hired in 1900 to protect Arctic terns and other seabirds along the Maine Coast. The idea quickly gained Theodore Roosevelts attention, and in March 1903 he set aside the first federal wildlife refuge (on Floridas Indian River). Later, Audubon itself began owning preserves. Its second preserve, established in 1924, was 12 acres of songbird habitat adjacent to Theodore Roosevelts family mansion in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
In the 1920s, the science of wildlife management was still evolving and preserve wardens were often left to follow their instincts. Eugene Swope, the first warden of the Roosevelt Sanctuary, patrolled the grounds with a .22 rifle and tended to kill anything that was not a songbird. Cowbirds, blue jays, and crows were tolerated in small numbers, but starlings, owls, and hawks were shot on sight. Swope was proud of the fact that during his 14 years at the preserve, he killed 147 cats and 360 snakes. The phrase "balance of nature" was unknown to him, as it was to many managers of his era. Swope planted fruit trees, berry bushes, and other food crops for birds, with no regard to whether the plant was native to the area. After he left in 1938, volunteers worked for decades to restore the area to a semblance of what it had once been before he arrived.
Audubons second trail-blazing activity was establishing a permanent environmental lobby. New York States Audubon Plumage law passed in 1910, and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed in 1918. The anti-plumage campaign established Audubon as a full-time supporter and watchdog for federal environmental agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Soil Conversation Service, and the Forest Service. The public and private wildlife refuge systems grew in tandem, their relationship shifting from admiration to antagonism depending on the issue at hand.
The third pioneering Audubon activity was environmental education. In 1899, the magazine Bird-Lore began under the editorial direction of Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History. The Audubon Society worked closely with the magazine, which became the unofficial journal of the birding movement. The Society bought the magazine in 1935 and re-named it Audubon in 1940. In 1910, the Junior Audubon Clubs began when the Society provided free classroom materials and field trips to public schools. Arthur Allen, a professor of ornithology at Cornell, created many of the early educational materials. By 1934, more than four million children across the country had passed through the clubs ranks.
One of Audubons most powerful allies came to the Society through the nine-member Bronx County Bird Club. Roger Tory Peterson was a small-town boy who got his passion for birds from the Junior Audubon Club of Jamestown, in Chatauqua County. As a young man, he virtually created the modern role of the birder. He and his cronies in the Bronx Club wielded binoculars instead of guns, chased bird sightings anywhere they could go (the Hunts Point Dump was a favorite site), and passionately pursued their "life list" of species sighted. Peterson, a gifted artist, joined the Audubon Society in November 1934, six months after the first edition of his book, A Field Guide to the Birds, was published. The book has sold millions of copies and is still in print. During his seven years at Audubon, Peterson also re-designed and updated the Junior Club materials. Between 1934 and 1941, another five million children passed through the Club.
The Audubon Society was also one of the first organizations to recognize the value of color photographs in promoting environmental causes. Audubon magazine moved early to publish beautiful bird pictures in its pages, and the images symbolized wild nature to thousands of urban readers who rarely saw the real thing. In the 1930s and 1940s, Cornell ornithologist Olin Pettingill, along with Roger Peterson and others, toured the country with movie projectors to host the Audubon Screen Tours. The movies they showed to local bird clubs and civic organizations were among the first "wildlife films" ever made. The screen tours crew shot as well as hosted the movies; their lectures built the movement, but also established a new kind documentary filmmaking and proved its popularity.
The Audubon Society faced constant internal tension over how far it should push its agenda. The more cautious members, such as President Gilbert Pearson, argued that compromise with hunters and developers was sometimes necessary to stay at the bargaining table. More radical members, such as Rosalie Edge, fought bitterly against this view. In 1929, Edge headed up a faction that eventually pushed Pearson out. The Pearson-Edge battle continues throughout the environmental movement to this day, with different actors voicing the same opinions.