A great egret looks at its reflection

The History of Audubon and Bird Conservation

Tracing the emergence of the modern bird conservation movement.

The National Audubon Society launched in 1905, on the heels of American conservationism and a growing movement to protect birds. As with many efforts to conserve nature, women led the way: The first Audubon Society was organized by two Boston environmentalists, Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, in response to the widespread slaughter of waterbirds, the gorgeous feathers of which were used to make women’s hats. The pair’s efforts in Massachusetts soon helped inspire similar organizations across the country.

By the time the National Audubon Society incorporated in New York State, local members had already established key bird conservation efforts across the country, including the Christmas Bird Count, where volunteers take stock of early winter bird populations, and the United States’ first National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Island in Florida.

In the decades that followed, the organization was on the front lines of the conservation movement, influencing policymakers to pass key legislation. Notable conservation laws in which Audubon helped pass include the Audubon Plumage Law in 1910 that protected wading birds from the depredations of the plume industry, the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act—still one of the strongest bird-protection laws in the world today—that made it illegal to kill any non-game bird in the U.S., the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the mammoth climate-change-focused Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. Audubon has also recently launched Conserva Aves in multiple countries in Latin America, a partnership that will protect 2 million hectares across nine countries. Meanwhile, Audubon also built nature centers and sanctuaries across the country; and helped to increase populations of many imperiled bird species, including Bald Eagles, Piping Plovers, California Condors, Least Terns, Great Egrets, and many more. Audubon’s work continues today across the hemisphere in the form of scientific research, policymaking, education, community engagement, and the conservation and management of 300 million acres of bird habitat.

Highlights from more than a century's worth of Audubon

1896 Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall organize a series of afternoon teas to convince Boston society ladies to eschew hats with bird feathers. These meetings culminate in the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

1900 Frank Chapman proposes the first annual Christmas Bird Count as an alternative to the traditional Christmas side hunt in his publication, Bird Lore, predecessor to Audubon magazine. Congressman John F. Lacey, at the urging of Audubon members, sponsored legislation that prohibits the illegal killing of birds and animals and the importation of non-native species.

1901 The Audubon Model Law is passed, protecting water birds from plume hunting.

1902 Guy Bradley becomes first hired Audubon game warden.

1903 President Theodore Roosevelt creates the first National Wildlife Refuge, on Florida's Pelican Island.

1905 The National Association of Audubon Societies is incorporated in New York State. William Dutcher is named first President. Guy Bradley, one of the first Audubon wardens, is murdered by game poachers in Florida.

1910 New York State legislature enacts the Audubon Plumage Law, prohibiting the sale or possession of feathers from protected bird species.

1913-1918 Congress passes a landmark law placing all migratory birds under federal protection. Three years later President Woodrow Wilson re-signs the law to include an international treaty provision between the U.S. and Canada.

1914 Martha, the last living Passenger Pigeon, dies.

1918 The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is ratified.

1923 Audubon hires its first coastal warden to protect nesting birds from poachers on Green Island in south Texas

1923-1924 Audubon opens its first sanctuaries: Rainey Sanctuary in Louisiana and Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary in Long Island.

1934 Roger Tory Peterson's field guide is published, popularizing birding like never before.

1936 Audubon opens a nature camp on Hog Island, Maine.

1940 The National Association of Audubon Societies becomes the National Audubon Society.

1943 The Greenwich Audubon Center in Connecticut opens as Audubon’s first nature center.

1945 Audubon magazine sounds the first alarm about the hazards of DDT. Audubon partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Whooping Crane Project.

1953 Audubon adopts a flying Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters, as its symbol.

1954 Audubon accepts the donation of the last great stand of bald cypress trees in Florida's Corkscrew Swamp to create the crown jewel of its sanctuary system.

1960 The Audubon Society begins documenting the decline of bird species, including Bald Eagles, attributing this to DDT.

1969 Audubon opens a public policy office in Washington, D.C.

1972 A campaign by the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Audubon Society ends in victory when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bans the use of the insecticide DDT.

1973 Endangered Species Act, considered the nation's toughest wildlife law, is passed, protecting hundreds of threatened and endangered species. Stephen Kress founds Project Puffin off the coast of Maine.

1980 The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act is passed, protecting 79.5 million acres, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

1981 Atlantic Puffins return to nest on Eastern Egg Rock for the first time in nearly a century, marking the success of Project Puffin

1984 Audubon starts the popular new children's educational program and publication Audubon Adventures.

1987 Audubon biologists help capture the last wild California Condor, which is placed in a captive breeding program with other survivors.

1988 The first condor chick is born in captivity in California, raising new hope for the species' survival.

1994 The Bald Eagle is down-listed from endangered to threatened.

1998 Audubon holds its first-ever Great Backyard Bird Count: 14,000 people participate.

1999 Almost 50,000 participants take part in the 100th Christmas Bird Count, now the longest-running bird survey in the world.

2000 With Audubon at the forefront, President Bill Clinton authorizes the Everglades Protection and Restoration Act, committing $7.8 billion.

2002 Audubon opens its first urban Audubon Center, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York; the center serves 50,000 visitors annually. The last free-flying Californian Condor is released back into the wild with more than 40 others.

2004 Audubon's science team releases the first "State of the Birds" report, the best data available since Silent Spring to document bird health and habitat.

2008 Toyota TogetherGreen, Audubon’s most ambitious corporate partnership, begins transforming communities and bringing new diversity to conservation.

2009 The Brown Pelican is removed from the endangered species list decades after the banning of DDT. Years of concerted conservation efforts made the recovery of this iconic coastal species possible.

2010 Audubon signs a collaborative agreement with Birdlife International

2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes, setting off the largest environmental disaster in US history, which killed 11 people, spilled 210 million gallons of oil, and killed nearly 1 million birds. Audubon's Coastal Bird Stewardship Program began on the Gulf Coast to monitor the impact on birds, in addition to policy and conservation work to ensure the birds and their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico are made whole.

2011 A multimillion-dollar strategic partnership between Audubon and Esri creates network-wide GIS mapping capability.

2014 Audubon releases its watershed climate report. Based on decades of data, Audubon scientists predict that, by 2080, 314 species will be threatened, endangered, or possibly extinct, due to habitat loss wrought by climate change.

2015 BP agrees to pay a record settlement of $18 billion to the US government and 5 Gulf states.

2016 Audubon adds a Spanish-language field guide

2018 Audubon launches the Migratory Bird Initiative

2018 Audubon launches its Audubon On Campus program on college and university campuses across North America

2019 Audubon releases its new Gulf restoration plan

2019 Audubon publishes Survival By Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, a report detailing the effects that climate change will have on North American birds.

2021 Audubon publishes its Natural Climate Solutions report, which details how protecting bird habitat is an effective way to tackle atmospheric carbon pollution at the same time.

2021 Dr. Elizabeth Gray joins Audubon as the 11th Chief Executive Officer, the first female CEO in the organization’s history.

2023 The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project, the largest conservation project in North America, breaks ground in Louisiana.