Some Lessons from the Jr. Audubon Clubs
by Paul J. Baicich
From the very start of the anti-feather-trade bird-protection movement of the late 1800s, there was an interest in winning over the sympathies of children. Beyond the general appeal by our bird-protection foremothers to a caring youthful public, there were two important institutional trends that arose.
The first organized attempt began with the “Nature Study Movement” led by Anna Botsford Comstock and other educators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a call to study nature, not simply books. The movement was particularly popular in the Northeast, West, and Midwest. Moreover, the grave economic downturn of 1893 gave the Nature Study Movement further grounding and purpose, since one message was to appreciate the beauties and simplicities of rural life and to avoid the temptations of corrupting city living.
The next big step began in 1910. In a formal effort to reach children in schools in the fall of that year, T. Gilbert Pearson, head of the National Association of Audubon Societies, announced a program of “Junior Audubon Classes” in the semi-official magazine of the Audubon movement, Bird-Lore. The effort was unveiled in the September-October issue of the magazine (cover shown here). This program, with its ups and downs, remained on the scene for about half a century.
Each child per class would pay a nominal annual fee (originally a dime) to become a Junior Audubon member. A minimum of 10 students was required. In return, the student would receive a set of colored pictures, leaflets, and a “button” with a bird on it, a Northern Mockingbird or other songbird.
The classroom teacher got a free subscription to Bird-Lore for teaching at least one lesson a month about birds. Perhaps most importantly, the study of birds was also correlated with reading, composition, history, geography, and even arithmetic. By the end of the school year in June of 1916, the campaign had organized 27,873 classes with a total Junior Audubon membership of 559,840 children. In the state of Ohio alone, the astounding effort reached almost 8,000 classrooms.
The distributed materials cost the Audubon Association about twice what the schoolchildren actually paid, so that by 1917, the Association was annually spending $25,000 more than the effort collected. (In 2015 dollars that would be over $465,000 per year.) Despite this fact, the Audubon leadership regarded the campaign as a valuable investment for the future. (There were also deep-pocket supporters, both known and anonymous, such as Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage and William P. Wharton who keep the program alive.)
The numbers of students engaged in the Junior Audubon efforts ebbed and flowed. It clearly dipped during WWI. And during the early years of the Depression, the numbers sagged again, but they picked up by the late 1930s so that between 1935 and 1939, over 600,000 children signed up. Some of this clearly had to do with the role played by a young Roger Tory Peterson in leading that effort at Audubon. Through the late 1930s, over 60 related leaflets were prepared, with over 3 million copies printed. Nine teacher guides appeared with a printing of 87,5000 copies. (To understand proportions, the population of the U.S. in 1939 was only about 131 million, or 40% of the population today.) By early 1942, the project could boast that more than 9,000,000 students had passed through the Junior Audubon clubs since their start in 1910.
After WWII, there were many alternate venues of entertainment to engage youngsters, not the least of which was TV, but the Jr. Audubon Clubs continued here and there. Unfortunately, school districts across the country resisted the practice of teachers’ collecting money from the young students for membership dues and bird charts. The Jr. Audubon efforts faded.
Some local Audubon clubs picked up the slack in supporting youth-oriented bird study. While a variation of this model reemerged in the 1980s with “Audubon Adventures,” never would the numbers of youthful participants be as high as they were in the 1920s and parts of the 1930s.
So, this raises some interesting questions. Why is it – with some major exceptions often described in the BEN Bulletin – that so many young-student efforts seem so weak compared to this past experience? Why does it seem that these current efforts are either very broad and general, with vague environmental lessons linked to birds, or are the exact opposite, highly intense, almost elite-oriented lessons of field-study and skill building directed to those few youth already with an interest – sometimes a deep interest – in birds? Over all, why are things so different – and even difficult – today?
There are probably three very good reasons why:
Back then, at the turn of the previous century, there was a rural majority in the country;
By the early 1900s, teachers had already been mobilized through the bird-protection movement of the 1890s, and
Teachers then had the freedom to teach.
When our bird protection foremothers sought to imbue schoolchildren with a concern for birds starting at the end of the 19th century, they were dealing with a country that was overwhelmingly rural (over 60% rural in 1900). Today we have a country, overwhelmingly urban and near-urban (over 84%). The cultural implications are enormous, with a century of changes.
By the start of the 20th century, the highly feminized cadre of instructors had already been previously recruited (and virtually prepared) through the bird-protection movement. The effort to stop the feather trade and market-hunting had already seen our foremothers aim to imbue schoolchildren with a concern for birds. The next educational step was logical, if not almost inevitable. We do not have that equivalent “source” today, we have no small army of prepared instructors, despite the great acceptance of environmentalism, going back to the 1970s.
And, finally, today our teachers at all levels are facing tasks – for 56 million enrolled school-age children (K-12) – that are far different than in the past. They face children increasingly removed from the outdoor experience, children who have other – mostly indoor – distractions, and circumstances where the classroom scene itself is consumed with “teaching to the test,” most recently under “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB).
Still, today we are blessed with many more vehicles for communications, a more informed biological base, a better understanding of the trans-national aspects of our birds, and an awareness of how birds are linked to other key features in our environment. We also have a century’s worth of bird-conservation experience upon which we can build.
What we lack to build a bird-literate society includes a small army of educators, a dense network of cooperators, an agreement over priorities, and the funding to make it all happen.
Every Student Succeeds Act, Succeeds!
In December, President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a replacement to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, after bipartisan acceptance of the new Act by both the House and Senate. The ESSA is the new iteration of the standing Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal government’s most significant education legislation, providing some $40 billion a year to support K-12 education in the United States.
Conservation and environmental education advocates across the nation quickly responded with celebratory press releases and support to the legislation citing the new provisions that support student learning about the environment, conservation and field studies. “This is an important breakthrough in making environmental and hands-on science education opportunities available to every American student. It will help millions of students across our nation learn about our natural resources firsthand, while improving their performance in science, technology, engineering, and math,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Judy Braus, Executive Director of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) noted, “The inclusion of environmental education language in the Every Student Succeeds Act signifies an important step forward for teachers and school systems who know what a rich and engaging context the local environment is for learning.”
The J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel (FL), dedicated four weekends in November and December to transporting and hosting families from local economically challenged neighborhoods to learn about the Refuge and its wildlife and habitat. Targeted areas included Tice, Harlem Heights, and Immokalee.
The Refuge treated families – nearly 100 visitors in all – to hikes, tram tours, and family crafts with Spanish interpreters on hand. This program was supported by the LAT Foundation, Wells Fargo, and Tarpon Bay Explorers, in keeping with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s mission to serve the underserved.
2016 Centennial Year of Birds Opportunity
The new year will bring in the Centennial Year for the Migratory Bird Treaty, and along with this, the State of North America’s Birds (SONAB) report, the first ever tri-national State of the Birds collaboration between the US, Canada, and Mexico. Working closely with Centennial messaging, the State of North America’s Birds report will provide a “report card” of birds across different ecosystems and serve as a call to our three national governments to reinvest in collaborative bird conservation.
These two bird conservation milestones are excellent opportunities for your organization to showcase how state-wide priorities and challenges reflect a national and international picture, as well as to highlight opportunities to address these broad-scale challenges within your region.
If your organization maintains a magazine that would be interested in including an article about the State of North America’s Birds report and the Centennial, contact Dr. Judith Scarl, Coordinator for the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.
Education in Action
Volunteers and participants scout the skies during the Annual Christmas Bird Count for Kids (CBC4Kids) at the Veterans Memorial Park Cemetery in Sonoma, California this past Sunday, Jan 3, 2016. This was the eighth year since Sonoma Birding began the program which is now hosted nationwide at parks, nature centers and beyond. Make a resolution to host your own CBC4Kids event this year.
The Bird Education Network (BEN) was created following the February 2007 National Gathering, hosted by the Council for Environmental Education (CEE). BEN is a CEE initiative that seeks to connect and support a community of bird education professionals.
Over 4,000 individuals representing 300 organizations receive communications and engage in professional dialogue through the BEN-administered Bird Education Listserv.
To learn more about us, read the BEN publication, “Toward a National Bird Education Strategy”.
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