Bird Conservation: A History

By Email author - Fri, 14 Sep 2012 13:32:00 GMT
Bird Conservation: A History

Florida Scrub-Jay Image; Credit: © Shutterstock

In today's technology-driven world, it can be very easy to focus on technological advances and ignore the effects on the Earth and the millions of species living on it. There are of course, many initiatives to draw attention and assistance to conservation efforts. The conservation world is smaller than one may think though, with many initiatives being spear-headed by the same people. Bird conservation is no different, and indeed, is not easily separated from general conservation efforts, nor should it be.

The most well-known bird conservation organization is the Audubon Society. This national society has numerous local chapters, and works to help various conservation causes. What is most impressive about the Audubon society is the success of their grassroots recruiting methods. This method is at the heart of Audbon's origins, long before the society was even imagined.

James John Audubon, the Society's namesake, is known best for his illustrations in his work Birds of America. His ability to capture realistic images of birds and wildlife was unprecedented in the 1800s. Unlike previous avifauna artists, he sought to display more than just an anatomically correct portrayal of the creatures. He wanted to show nature's beauty.

Audubon's means to achieving these natural images may be surprising to conservationists not familiar with art history. It was common for artists to kill the animals they intended to paint. After all, they could not very well ask a cougar or a flock of seagulls to hold still for a couple hours while they painted. Audubon was no different, and was an avid hunter. It is a bit shocking to imagine the pile of carcasses the artist accumulated to complete his prolific collection of work.

In order to make his living, Audubon solicited subscriptions and commissions. He also sold the skins of the animals he hunted in order to fund his work. He sought out the wealthy and influential, made connections, and therefore made money. This is the same technique that the Audubon Society uses today. They make personal connections to garner support. This befits a conservation society, as the most natural way to make connections is to interact with people.

Audubon was not just a painter. His fieldwork added vast amounts of information to our knowledge and understanding of birds. In seeking their capture, Audubon observed the mating habits, migration patterns, and general tendencies of his subjects. This information was scientifically valuable and made Audubon what the Society has deemed a "citizen scientist." This term is used by the Society to describe non-professional bird-observers today. The Society also keeps alive the connection between the scientific knowledge to be found in nature and its artistic beauty.

In 1886, the editor of environmental magazine "Field and Stream" George Grinnell, was appalled by the number of birds killed for plumes for ladies' hats. He started "Audubon Magazine," dedicated to speaking out against bird slaughter. Given Audubon's methods, the artist may seem like an unlikely choice, but Grinnell had admired Audubon's work as a child and attended the school of Audubon's widow, Lucy. His own fascination with birds originated from Audubon's work, and he knew of the artist's love and respect for nature.

After many years and influential endorsements, laws were passed in many states to outlaw plume hunting. This was only the beginning of the Society's influence on nature preservation laws. Since then, Audubon has expanded their reach to cover conservation in general. They are strong proponents of green energy, have been great assets in the fight to protect whales, and of course, the enactment of many bird sanctuaries.

The success of the Audubon Society stems from the fact that it is a conglomeration of many individual groups of people working under the same name. This allows focus on many different issues. Audubon members can pursue issues that are pertinent to them with the support and resources of a national society behind them.

Science and education are naturally ingrained in the legacy of The Audubon Society. To continue collecting data about the state of the birds, Audubon instated the Christmas Bird Count. This initiative enlists people to report their observations of birds in the wild in order for a census to be made of birds throughout the western hemisphere.

The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology has also become a big name in bird conservation. They have implemented a project similar to the Christmas Bird Count in that its purpose is to compile census of birds. Project FeederWatch enlists amateur bird watchers across the United States to record sightings at bird feeders in their own back yards. Both of these projects are efforts to involve everyday citizens in the science of ornithology and also engender interest in and knowledge of preservation efforts.

Being the big names in such a narrow field means that some collaboration is necessary for progress to be made. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society have combined resources up to create eBird, a database dedicated to recording bird observations and distribution. They have also created several mobile apps with this purpose.

Of course, data collection is only a part of conservation. Both groups offer an abundance of information about conservation issues. These resources allow people to learn about areas of concern and how they can help combat the problem.

Whether you are interested in conservation for scientific, moral, or simply aesthetic reasons, there is a niche for you in the conservation world. There is a lot of overlap with issues. Global warming affects both animals and the environment, as do pollution and endangered species laws. Focus on one species will involve all of these issues, whereas focus on one issue will involve many species.

The heart of conservation is the appreciation of nature and the desire to preserve it. Death is a natural part of life. Some birds will be killed and it will not always be for useful purposes. The key is to reach a point where species can remain unthreatened despite casualties. This is the objective of conservation and information gathering efforts. That is the heart of Project Feederwatch and the Christmas Bird Count, to observe without harming.

Despite Cornell's contributions, not all ornithologists are interested in conservation. The study of birds sometimes requires observation that can only be done on specimens. As Audubon himself hunted his subjects, it seems contradictory for the Audubon Society to disdain the collection of birds for scientific purposes. In all reality, a balance must be reached where information and nature are equally valued.

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Topics: Birds