All About the Audubon Society Fund

Audubon Society History

When the Audubon Society first formed in 1886, plume hunters were decimating North American bird populations in the name of fashion. Ladies trimmed their hats and clothing with birds' exotic feathers. Shorebirds and migratory birds that stayed near the water suffered the most as hunters targeted large flocks, injuring animals indiscriminately and orphaning chicks.

George Bird Grinnell, the Audubon Society's founder, was an atypical animal activist. He ran "Forest and Stream," a hunting and fishing journal, and enjoyed quarrying big game. But the unmitigated slaughter of birds for their feathers disturbed even the most avid hunters. Grinnell began publishing pieces against plume hunting in his magazine. His enthusiasm soon drove him to produce an independent pamphlet, entitled "Audubon Magazine," in honor of the illustrator John James Audubon. Although Grinnell had not known Audubon, he had attended the day school of the artist's widow and wandered among his artifacts.

Elaborate plumes
George C. Beresford/Beresford/
Getty Images
The Audubon Society opposed the elaborate plumes
worn by ladies like Mrs. Charles Bruce in 1902.

Initially, the society existed solely in the magazine's pages. There were no members or meetings -- simply subscribers united against plume hunting who also enjoyed reading ornithological biographies, bird histories and stories about feathered pets. However, Grinnell could not keep pace with the magazine's success and shut down publication in 1888.

Eight years later, Boston socialite Harriet Hemenway decided to take her own stand against the still-rampant practice of plume hunting. She and a cousin scoured the Boston Blue Book, an index of the city's elite, marking names of fashionable women who dressed in plumes and inviting them to join a society for the protection of birds. Hemenway united the ladies with naturalists and people interested in ornithology; the group called itself the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

By the turn of the century, the society had expanded across the country, unified under a national committee and encouraged federal and state legislation against plume hunting. The Audubon Society helped create the first Federal Bird Reservation which ultimately led to the formation of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Plumes of Blood
Plume hunters took their work seriously and sometimes violently resisted the Audubon Society's efforts to protect wild birds. In 1905, Guy Bradley, an Audubon warden near Flamingo, Fla., was shot in the throat by plume hunters illegally killing nesting birds. Another warden, Columbus G. MacLeod, died in the line of duty only three years later. The murders heightened the Society's admonishment of plumes for fashion.

In the next section, we'll learn about what the Audubon Society does to protect some of North America's greatest ecosystems.