October 2016

Vol. 44, No. 5

The Founding of the Association of Massachusetts Bird Clubs (AMBC), 2016

John Nelson

In 1924 a group of bird clubs from across New England formed the Federation of the Bird Clubs of New England to work together for bird conservation in the region. Massachusetts state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush was chosen as first president, and member clubs lobbied effectively to get state funding for the publication of Forbush’s three-volume Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, the first truly comprehensive study of the region’s birds. The Federation also strove to preserve prime bird habitat. To protect coastal breeding birds, the Federation purchased Egg Rock off Nahant and Milk Island off Rockport in Massachusetts, and working with private donors and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the organization successfully campaigned to acquire land for a wildlife sanctuary on Plum Island. The Federation was also part of a final, failed attempt to save the Heath Hen from extinction, and it was among the first organizations to publicize the threat to birds posed by feral cats. In 1934 Francis H. Allen wrote a brief history, A Federation of the Bird Clubs in New England: A Record of its First Ten Years, to document the Federation’s achievements.

There is little available information about the Federation after 1934, and by decade’s end it was apparently defunct. Yet the Federation still illustrates how bird clubs can benefit both birds and club members by coming together with a common purpose. I cited the Federation in early 2016 when, with the support of the Brookline Bird Club, I proposed to bird club representatives from around the state that we form a new association of bird clubs in Massachusetts. The primary purpose of this association, I explained, would be to establish a simple, direct channel of communication for clubs to share information about events, initiatives to protect birds or their habitats, and other matters of mutual interest. What I envisioned was a loose, non-binding alliance without officers, by-laws, dues, or bureaucracy. Member clubs could share information or propose joint activities as often or as seldom as they wished. Once an association was formed, the group could exchange ideas about how to give the organization a sharper focus or a more specific agenda.

I wasn’t sure how other clubs would react, and I anticipated, if not resistance, at least some skepticism about the value or feasibility of an association. But the responses from around the state were positive, often enthusiastic, in a spirit of camaraderie. I discovered that I had omitted several small clubs of which I was previously unaware, and they were delighted when I extended the proposal to them. Eventually I asked all the clubs to agree in writing to establish an association, with the provisions that “no member club or individual shall claim to represent the Association without the knowledge of all other member clubs and the consent of at least ¾ of member clubs” and that “any club may choose to revoke its membership at any time.” By July 2016, the following seventeen clubs from across the state had agreed to form an association:

It will take time for our association to make progress in agenda-setting, or even to establish a dialogue among the member clubs. Thus far e-mail has been used for all communications, and it is evident that, despite logistical obstacles, a face-to-face meeting and discussion would energize all the different bird clubs. At least for the moment we have a structure in place that can enhance connections among birders across Massachusetts, offer opportunities for co-sponsorship, and advocate for the welfare of birds. A simple example of the potential for joint advocacy is the recent proposal by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge in New England. Several bird clubs and individual birders from around the state have already sent in letters to support the proposal, but a letter from the Association could justifiably claim to represent the views of thousands of taxpaying birders.

The Association also will make it easier for member clubs to co-sponsor activities, especially field trips and speaker events. As an example, on June 4, 2016 the Allen Bird Club, Hampshire Bird Club, and Brookline Bird Club jointly sponsored a productive outing at the grasslands of Westover Air Force Base. Co-sponsored trips provide opportunities to introduce birders to areas they have never explored, enable club members to meet other birders from across the state, and increase overall participation in field trips. I hope that clubs will take the initiative to contact fellow clubs with ideas for joint excursions that might appeal to their members.

Another potential value of this new Association is in spreading the word to encourage birders from member clubs to work with state and federal agencies, especially the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), to gather data important for bird conservation. Club members can provide useful data by submitting sightings of endangered breeding birds to the NHESP, which uses such reports to support legal protection for state-listed species. Volunteer observers are also needed in Massachusetts for the annual Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), organized by the U.S. Geological Service, and state ornithologist Andrew Vitz is seeking qualified birders to conduct breeding bird surveys of state wildlife management areas, such as the Westborough and the Burrage Pond Wildlife Management Areas in Hanson and Halifax, where data are needed to determine the status of breeding birds.

The vitality of our Association will depend on how often and how actively the member clubs communicate with one another. It is too early to know what direction the organization might take. Yet I am optimistic about its potential to bring birders in the state together—to meet one another, share ideas, bird together, and take unified action on behalf of our birds.

John Nelson, of Gloucester, MA, serves on the board of the Brookline Bird Club and the council of the Essex County Ornithological Club, and chairs the BBC’s Conservation and Education Committee. A regular contributor, he published 100th anniversary histories of both clubs in Bird Observer. His other recent writings about birds include “I Saw What I Said I Saw: Witnesses to Birds and Crimes” in the Winter 2015 issue of The Missouri Review; “Funny Bird Sex,” the lead article in the January 2016 issue of The Antioch Review; and “A Morning on the Rio Negro,” a story about birding in Amazonia, scheduled for publication in the Fall 2016 issue of Birdwatching.

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