Audubon Chapters: A History

How a grassroots network came to be.

By Frank Graham Jr.

Chapters are the organs through which National Audubon perceives and addresses our continent’s most pressing environmental issues. Self-governing societies, locally focused and administered, they put a public face on Audubon’s work as well as on its day-to-day impact on the state of the nation’s natural resources.

The Audubon movement incorporated in 1905 as a federation of local organizations, calling itself the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals. But the concept of a group of like-minded organizations working together for a vital national objective took a half-century to work out.

Transportation and communication across a vast continent were, technologically, still evolving. Aviation and telecommunications remained mostly inaccessible in everyday life. Incorporated in New York, the Audubon leadership was of necessity heavily weighted toward men and women resident in the northeastern states. Elsewhere, local societies declined in activism and funding as the Great Depression came on. More and more, the New York-Washington axis made policy for the Audubon movement.

The creator of the modern system of Audubon chapters was Charles H. Callison. Already a prominent conservation lobbyist in Washington, DC, he came to Audubon in 1960 as assistant to then-president Carl W. Buchheister. Callison realized that a key to success in the preservation of wildlife and natural resources was the building of a strong political force. He hoped to inspire members all over the country with his own passion. He wanted to convert birdwatchers into activists who would cohere as a unified front in the inevitable battles over conservation issues in Congress and state legislatures.

Callison made personal contact with Audubon members in all regions of the country. A former newspaperman, he developed a newsletter called Audubon Leaders’ Conservation Guide which was sent to politically active Auduboners on a regular basis, alerting them to legislative priorities and the action (if any) taken by state and federal agencies on implementing them.

There was already in place a program around which local activists might coalesce. Before World War II, a St. Louis birdwatcher and radio broadcaster named Wayne Short had set up a series of screen tours that local bird clubs and Audubon groups might sponsor in their own areas. Roger Tory Peterson, Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr., and other prominent photographers and filmmakers took part in the series, bringing entertaining nature programs to all parts of the country. The program regularly brought together people with a strong interest in nature.

By the 1960s the rise of television was beginning to threaten the viability of Wayne Short’s in-person presentations. Callison and Buchheister, however, saw that the nature lovers and conservationists they brought together in a common interest might become the core of revitalized Audubon chapters. Originally called “branches,” the new organizations formed over time a continent-wide network of grassroots activists. Social traditions and local opportunities varied from state to state. For instance, the independent Michigan Audubon Society became a National Audubon chapter after long negotiations between the Detroit and Michigan societies to determine how they would divide members in that area.

Succeeding generations of Audubon leaders built on Callison’s work. Until 1970, Audubon’s presence in the Rocky Mountain states was difficult to detect. There were only five scattered chapters with about 1500 members in the region. Those numbers were to grow during the next decade or so to more than 40 chapters and 18,000 members.

Simultaneously, effective activism blossomed in that region. In 1971, activists in Casper, Wyoming’s Murie Audubon Society discovered a graveyard of Bald and Golden Eagles. Upon investigation, the members learned that ranchers had dumped the birds after illegally poisoning them as a threat to their livestock. The discovery triggered a backlash against current predator control. The state fined a prominent sheep rancher, federal agencies banned the use of some toxic chemicals, and eventually the area became a sanctuary for wintering eagles.

Audubon chapters, keyed by passionate and informed members, continue to press nationwide for stronger conservation laws and regulations, while adding their on-site support to their enforcement:

  • Beginning in 1995, the chapters played an indispensable role in initiating the Important Bird Areas program. Chapter volunteers in Pennsylvania and New York scoured their territories, applying science-based criteria to identify and protect promising local habitat for feeding, nesting, and migrating birds under IBA designations.
  • Along coastlines, Audubon volunteers continue to guard nesting sites of troubled species such as Least Terns and Snowy Plovers on busy beaches.
  • A decade ago, in a kind of continuing education program, Virginia’s Fairfax Audubon Society launched college-level natural history courses for adults ranging in age from 25 to 75, qualifying for Master Naturalist Certificates.

The vision of a powerful federation of societies, nurtured by pioneering conservationists more than a century ago, bears fruit today in National Audubon’s network of chapters.