December 2018

Vol. 46, No. 6

Thornton Burgess, Dr. William Hornaday, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Christie Palmer Lowrance

Left: William T. Hornaday, courtesy of the Guilford Township Historical Collection and Greg Dehler; Right: Thornton W. Burgess signing books, courtesy of the Thornton W. Burgess Society and the author.

The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been a powerful piece of American conservation legislation for 100 years, but few know about the valuable and unique role a children's author played in its origins.

In the early decades of the twentieth century Dr. William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Society, now the Bronx Zoo, was engaged in a political battle, "warfare" he called it, to secure congressional passage of protective legislation for wildlife, especially migratory birds. One of the most influential men in American conservation, Hornaday was a fiery, often abrasive wildlife activist, author, and lobbyist widely credited with saving the American buffalo.

In the preface of his 1913 book published by the New York Zoological Society (Charles Scribner's Sons), Our Vanishing Wild Life, Hornaday delivered a scorching indictment of America's "rage for wildlife slaughter," saying "We are weary of witnessing the greed, selfishness and cruelty of ‘civilized' man toward the wild creatures of the earth... It is time for a sweeping Reformation, and that is precisely what we now demand" (Hornaday, p. x). Hornaday biographer Greg Dehler says that Our Vanishing Wild Life offered the first comprehensive treatment of wildlife conservation as a separate topic and made use of charts, facts, graphs, and most importantly, photographs.

Hornaday's 411-page book laid out wildlife extinctions from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, species by species, state by state, and cause by cause (automatic and pump action guns, use of cars, market hunting, the millinery trade, and domestic cats among them), as well as anticipated extinctions. The demise of perhaps the best known migratory bird, the passenger pigeon, is described in ghastly detail, citing W.B. Mershon's The Passenger Pigeon: "In 1869, from the town of Hartford, Mich, three carloads of dead pigeons were shipped to market each day for forty days, making a total of 11,880,000 birds" (Hornaday, p. 11).

Hornaday quoted ornithologist Alexander Wilson in his book American Ornithology who stated that he had witnessed a column of passenger pigeons conservatively estimated to be a mile in width. Given the hours it took to pass him, Wilson estimated the flock contained 2,230,272,000 pigeons. "The fate of this species should be a lasting lesson to the world at large," Hornaday declared. "Any wild bird or mammal species can be exterminated by commercial interest in twenty years time or less" (Hornaday, p. 14).

Often accused of playing loose with his facts, Hornaday stated that the statistics in Our Vanishing Wild Life on extinct and threatened birds and mammals were obtained from 250 officials and observers in all 48 United States and Canada. In Idaho, for example, Dr. D. S. Moody noted that the Wood Duck, Long-billed Curlew, Whooping Crane, and American bison were extinct (Hornaday, p. 43). Hornaday reported the number of hunting licenses legally issued in 1911 in just 27 states was nearly 1,500,000 and the number of shotgun cartridges being produced annually by four major companies was 775 million.

"The cause of wildlife protection greatly needs three things," the conservationist had written in 1913, "Money, labor and publicity." Three years later he met a children's author who would provide him and other Migratory Bird Treaty proponents a massive platform for publicity and propaganda, an audience of readers that included hunters and conservationists, Americans and Canadians, farmers and businessmen, and best of all, generations of present and future voters—all accessible through the children's animal stories of Thornton Burgess.

Hornaday and Burgess meet

A journalist and Good Housekeeping editor, Burgess never expected to be a children's author. But after his first book, Old Mother West Wind, was published by Little, Brown & Company in 1910, other titles followed and soon attracted a voracious audience. Combining a strong writing background with his deep love of nature and conservation, Burgess created children's books, daily newspaper columns, and nature clubs that entrenched his values and wildlife characters in the hearts and homes of early 20th century readers throughout North America.

Burgess also founded a remarkable bird sanctuary program promoted through the popular People's Home Journal. It encouraged landowners to post property as bird sanctuaries that prohibited hunting and supported bird populations with housing and food. This grassroots wartime conservation effort disseminated vast amounts of information about the importance of birds to agriculture for insect control, among other things. Between 1917 and 1924, more than five million acres of private land throughout the U.S. and Canada were posted for protection and support of birds. The program was lauded by John Burroughs, William Finley, Herbert Hoover, and T.S. Palmer, Bureau of Biological Survey, and of course, William Hornaday.

Burgess lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, but often traveled to New York on business. Hoping to get an endorsement for his bird sanctuaries program, he paid an impromptu visit to Hornaday's office at the Zoological Society, but was swiftly dismissed by the busy administrator. Undeterred, Burgess wrote to Hornaday, describing the scope of his readership and conservation goals of his various nature clubs.

If Burgess was awed by Hornaday's reputation and status as a conservation lobbyist, Hornaday was equally impressed by the tremendous reach of Burgess' nature stories and their potential influence on environmental attitudes. He replied to Burgess in January 1916, saying:

I am delighted by the fact that you desire to enter into the very serious business of promoting the protection and increase of the wildlife of our country. Goodness knows, you are badly needed! You have it in your power to influence the minds of millions of children, saying nothing of grown-ups, and you can easily turn that into a valuable asset for the protection of birds and animals… As an educator, you have a larger audience than any other teacher of the young.

Following the January letter, Hornaday sent Burgess a warm, complimentary letter and an invitation to meet for lunch at the Zoological Park. That year, 1916, conservationists like Hornaday were working tirelessly to achieve passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty, so when Burgess asked how he could help with the effort, Hornaday had a ready answer:

I think that you can score a good point by describing "The Gauntlet of the Guns" that a wild duck runs when spring shooting is in vogue, all the way from the Gulf to Canada. ...At this very moment a lot of gunners in Illinois....are out in force, banging from shore to shore...killing ducks that are going north to breed. This warfare is being carried out contrary to the regulations of the federal migratory bird law, but as the gunners say, in accordance with the rotten laws of the state of Illinois which permits spring shooting when not otherwise prevented....I often wonder how a duck can get through alive, and how any duck could find feed and get a little rest on the journey without being killed. The picture of Mrs. Duck running the ‘Gauntlet of the Guns' rather appeals to my imagination. (Lowrance, p. 150)

It appealed to Burgess' imagination too. Between March and May of 1916, his syndicated columns about the conditions experienced by migrating birds ran daily in newspapers throughout North America, telling the heart-wrenching and desperate story of a migratory duck and her family fighting to survive. Burgess strategically used arguments of protectionists for game limits, hunting seasons, and fair hunting practices, as well as sympathetic appeal for the welfare of wildlife.

It is impossible, of course, to definitively measure the impact he had on public and political opinion, but no historian should overlook his influence as a naturalist. In the second decade of the 1900s, before radio and television became part of American life, reading Burgess newspaper columns was a daily ritual for hundreds of thousands of subscribers to scores of major North American newspapers. At its peak, his column was carried in 100 daily newspapers. If only 20 papers had 20,000 daily subscribers, to say nothing of newsstand sales, his column assuredly reached 400,000 households, not individuals, a day.

When the Kansas City Star announced membership to a Burgess "Bedtime Story Club" as an add-on feature for subscribers, they had 50,000 enrollees within three weeks. The New York Globe followed suite and enrolled 198,000 children. "This meant we had 198,000 children who cried for the Globe every night," wrote Jason Rogers in his 1918 book Newspaper Building. "We carried the idea to the extent of monster meetings of the Bedtime Story Club in the public parks, where we brought out 15,000 to 20,000 at a gathering" (cited in Lowrance, p. 134).

Starting in the spring of 1916, Burgess' stories about the conditions experienced by migrating birds ran daily for weeks throughout the U.S. and Canada. The Migratory Bird Treaty passed in August 1916, and in 1917 the stories were published as a collection titled The Adventures of Poor Mrs. Quack by Little, Brown & Company.

In a fascinating letter dated November 1, 1916, Hornaday thanked Burgess and offered a summary of the 1916 conservation efforts:

I rejoice when I reflect upon the amount of good work that your stories are accomplishing for the maintenance of the migratory bird law and the treaty. Like a great deal of my work and that of the Audubon Society and other organizations, your work has gone into the general fund of public sentiment for the protection of birds and the result was overwhelmingly manifested two months ago when we had a showdown in the United States Senate with the enemies of the migratory law. They put up a great fight. They spent a lot of money and a lot of effort in lobbying at Washington and in the public campaigns, but we smote them hip and thigh and gave them about the worst licking that any bunch of enemies of wildlife ever received. They were beaten in the Senate in their efforts to destroy the migratory bird law appropriations by a vote of a 50 to 8, which was a decrease of more than 50% from their previous showing of strength in that body.

Hornaday continued:

But the crowning triumph was the Senate's treatment of the international treaty with Canada for the protection of all the migratory birds north of Mexico, clear to the Arctic Ocean. The attitude of the Senate was of course clearly foreshadowed in the vote to sustain the migratory bird law; but even with all that we were not prepared for the lightning stroke of progress which sent the treaty triumphantly through the Senate in four days! Naturally we expected a fight that would be put up by the Missouri contingent; but we were informed by grapevine telephone that in the executive session of the Senate, when Sen. Reed of Missouri arose to make a great long speech of denunciation in his usual style, a southern Senator went over to him and twice over commanded him to ‘sit down and keep still' - which he finally did. The treaty was ratified by a practically unanimous vote and whether the federal law is sustained by the Supreme Court or not, the treaty will stand.

Hornaday was known to be lavish in criticism, not praise, so Burgess must have taken enormous pride when the conservationist added, "All this is the result of a joint effort in this field, and you can always have the satisfaction of knowing that you have contributed substantially to these grand results."

Four months later, he wrote Burgess again with congratulations that

You and your publishers have put Mrs. Quack into a book, and now I shall go again through the whole story of her eventful life. And at this point I wish particularly to thank you for your valuable services to the migratory birds in the production of this series of stores for your great multitude of readers...Wishing you long life and continuous activities in the good causes that you do well promote, Faithfully yours, W.T. Hornaday. (March 29, 1917)

The year after the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the deep-pocketed Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund, also headed by Hornaday, presented children's author and naturalist Thornton Burgess with a gold medal award, only their third. Previously the medal had honored the work of Margaret Sage and Aldo Leopold. It is worthwhile to note that Chan Robbins, veteran U.S. Fish and Wildlife ornithologist, was on the American team that negotiated expansion of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with the Soviet Union in 1976. This provided protection for approximately 50 species—and Robbins, as well as David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club, and Bradford Washburn, former director of the Boston Museum of Science, credit Thornton Burgess with their early love of nature.


  • Burgess, Thornton W. 1917. The Adventures of Poor Mrs. Quack. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.
  • Hornaday, William T. 1913. Our Vanishing Wild Life. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Lowrance, Christie Palmer. 2013. Nature's Ambassador: the Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing.

Christie Palmer Lowrance is the author of Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess.

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