A HISTORY OF THE NORTH AMERICAN BLUEBIRD SOCIETY
by Mary D. Janetatos
We actually tried not to found the North American Bluebird Society! In the spring of 1977, Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, bluebird activist and author (The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight for Survival, 1976, Indiana University Press) and I, president of the Audubon Naturalist Society of the Central Atlantic States (ANS), Chevy Chase, Maryland, journeyed to New York City to meet with the executive director of the National Audubon Society (NAS). Although cordial, the meeting did not produce the desired result–support for a national bluebird preservation effort.
Since the publication of Larry’s article, “Song of Hope for the Bluebirds” in the June 1977 issue of National Geographic Magazine (NG) was pending, the time seemed ripe for the major conservation organizations, i.e. NAS and National Wildlife Federation, to get into high gear regarding bluebirds. Larry had been alerting people to the plummeting bluebird population in his monthly column in the Purple Martin News of Griggsville, Illinois (now the Nature Society News). Each late winter he had also been sending out press releases to newspapers under the auspices of the Maryland Ornithological Society. He supplied nest box plans and instructions along with a brief summary of the bluebird’s problems, and an explanation of how individuals could help. The NG article was the first in a large, general-interest publication to highlight the bluebird’s plight. Because ANS had been the sponsor of Larry’s book, his “bluebirder” friends tried to get that organization interested in spearheading a “bluebird conservation movement” continent wide, based on the interest generated by the article. All efforts were to no avail. The prevailing opinion of the national conservation organizations seemed to be, “Why concentrate on just one bird? This
organization exists for all species!”
Three meetings for bluebird enthusiasts were scheduled at ANS’ Woodend headquarters. Organizations represented were ANS, the Prince George’s County Chapter of NAS, and the Virginia Society of Ornithology. Speaking for ANS was Bob Lavell, who officially stated that, as a regional organization, they could not lead a continent wide effort on behalf of bluebird conservation. Delos C. “Chuck” Dupree, at that time an ANS board member, made a strong case for starting a new group to promote the conservation of bluebirds and other native cavity nesters. Another strong proponent of a new organization was Bob Patterson, president of the Prince George’s County Chapter, NAS.
At the end of the third Woodend meeting, the decision was made to organize a new group. The founding officers and board of directors were selected. Larry Zeleny officially became the founder of the newly-formed North American Bluebird Society (NABS). Its office would be in Silver Spring, Maryland, in the home of Executive Director Mary Janetatos, whose term as ANS president had expired. President Bob Patterson secured the IRS non-profit status and the bulk-mailing permit; he also formulated the by-laws and constitution, which were modeled on the NAS chapter documents. Treasurer Chuck Dupree set up the financial base which was to be instrumental in maintaining solvency. The date of incorporation was March 20, 1978 (Sialia 1:33-34).
The core of the new group’s charter members were those people who had written to Larry Zeleny with bluebird questions in response to his articles in various publications. These members were located all over the United States, Canada, and Bermuda. Among them were Norah Lane, widow of John Lane, of Brandon, Manitoba, and Lorne Scott, of Indian Head, Saskatchewan. These three veteran bluebirders had encouraged healthy populations of Mountain Bluebirds in Canada. Hubert Prescott, of Eugene, Oregon, was representative of those working to aid the Western Bluebird. More than 600 of these enthusiasts became NABS charter members immediately.
Editor Jon E. Boone designed the quarterly journal, Sialia. Jon was also instrumental in creating the beautiful color brochure, “Where Have All the Bluebirds Gone?” More than one million copies have been distributed. With the second issue of volume two, Joanne K. Solem became the editor, maintaining the quality of the journal and winning widespread respect for the balance of general interest articles and scientific research. The founding art editor was Suzanne Pennell. M. Suzanne Probst, the current art editor, has occupied that volunteer position since the Autumn 1988 issue. The journal stands as one of NABS’ greatest achievements. It has a Library of Congress listing.
The Society’s logo (a juvenile bluebird, signifying all three bluebird species, perched near a nest box) and slogan (Effective Conservation) were devised jointly by the founding president, editor, executive director, treasurer, and art editor. Both were approved by Founder Larry Zeleny.
The event which really put NABS “on the map” was the Joan Rattner Heilman article, “You Can Hear the Bluebird’s Song Again” in the November 25, 1979 issue of Parade Magazine, the Sunday supplement which goes to 15 million readers across the country. Approximately 80,000 people responded, each one requesting the NABS brochure, “Where Have All the Bluebirds Gone?” Coping with that volume of mail was a challenge met by Executive Director Mary Janetatos with the help of hundreds of people inside and outside the birding community. By the end of February 1980, the last of the inquiries had been answered and new memberships were flooding in (Sialia 2:80-82). Among those new members were future NABS presidents: Sadie Dorber, Vestal, New York, who currently chairs the Nominating Committee and Charlotte Jernigan, Wagoner, Oklahoma, now serving as president.
From the beginning, the Board of Directors had mandated a place for all native cavity-nesting birds in the scope of NABS’ work. The three species of bluebirds (Eastern, Western, and Mountain) may have been our “banner birds,” but all native cavity nesters were to be protected and their welfare promoted. The Society’s Education Committee revised the brochure, “Where Have All the Bluebirds Gone.” They also produced the first slide program under the direction of Richard Tuttle, of Delaware, Ohio.’ This program made it possible for the Speakers’ Bureau to function.
There is a new addition: the cavity nester slide program assembled by Myrna Pearman, a former NABS board member and biologist at the Ellis Bird Farm, Lacombe, Alberta. The Speakers’ Bureau is energetically and capably headed by Ron Kingston, Charlottesville, Virginia, who reports on its activities regularly in Sialia. In the Winter 1997 issue, Ron reported that a total of 738 programs were presented in 1995. Past-president Sadie Dorber chaired the Education Committee’s effort to produce an educational packet for use in the middle elementary school grades. It is titled “Getting to Know Bluebirds” and has been well received by teachers and youth leaders.
In order to make nest boxes readily available to bluebirders, NABS has used a number of suppliers. Veteran bluebirder Orville Rowe of Elkhart, until Orville’s death in the mid-1980s. After the Parade article came out, a family-owned factory called Indian Country near Binghamton, New York, augmented NABS’ capability to fill nest box orders. At present, orders are filled by various craftsmen. The list of articles for sale grew into a four-page picture catalogue of bluebird-related books, nest boxes, sparrow traps, and collectibles.
Since its inception, research has been a high priority for the Society. Larry Zeleny had hoped that research would address the problems faced by bluebirds, i.e. sparrow competition, predation, brood failure, etc. Chuck Dupree, however, always made the case for “pure research” and this opinion prevailed with the NABS board through the years. The Research Committee has always had input from or been headed by individuals from the academic community. These included Ben Pinkowski, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, whose doctoral thesis concentrated on bluebird biology, Tedd Gutzke, division chief at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, and the present capable chairman, Associate Professor Kevin Berner, SUNY, Cobleskill, New York. In 1985, Tedd Gutzke compiled A Bibliography of the Technical Literature of the Bluebird Genus Sialia, which was published by NABS. It was expanded and updated in 1992 by Nancy E. Niles, SUNY, Cobleskill. This edition was funded and published by the Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program. Over the years approximately $100,000 has been awarded as NABS Research Grants on a broad range of subjects about many species of native cavity-nesting birds. Bequests, grants from several bluebird organizations, and individual donations have funded this program.
The late Duncan Mackintosh of Lethbridge, Alberta, founded Mountain Bluebird Trails in 1980. Later, Art Aylesworth of Ronan, Montana, began a similar group. Both men had served as NABS board members; Art has also served on the NABS Nominating Committee. At the urging of these veteran bluebirders, NABS revised its “Nest Box Plans and Instructions” handout to accommodate the slightly larger Mountain Bluebird with an entrance hole measuring 19/16 in. instead of 1 -1/2 in for the other two species.
Larry Zeleny continued to be our “bluebird guru” as he monitored his 60+ nest box trail on the grounds of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Research Center at Beltsville, Maryland. He monitored his trail until 1992, three years before his death on May 27, 1995 at the age of 91. His trail adjoined that of Chuck Dupree’s at the Goddard Space Flight Center. When Chuck retired as chief of grounds in 1983, he found others to monitor those nest boxes. He was then free to devote much wore of his time to NABS, which he did until his sudden death at the age of 76 on May 6, 1996.
In addition to research, another priority from the beginning has been motivating governmental agencies to concentrate more attention and resources on non-game bird species, especially the bluebird and other native cavity nesters. From its founding, NABS was prepared to respond to the growing and widespread interest in bluebirds and cavity nesters by state and provincial departments. We furnished information through the slide programs, the color brochure, and personalized help to individuals, groups, and a number of agencies.
NABS has assisted other bird conservation movements, whenever help was requested. James R. Hill, III, founder of the Purple Martin Conservation Association visited NABS headquarters prior to his starting that group. We shared with him many of the pressures and pitfalls he might encounter. He has conveyed his gratitude for the encouragement and assistance he received. A hummingbird society is also on the horizon and its founder, Ross Hawkins, of Newark, Delaware, has asked assistance from NABS.
Political activity, even that involving other environmental causes, has always been studiously avoided by NABS, as clearly stated in the by-laws. It is a matter of some pride that no tax money has ever been sought by the Society. Funding for programs and operational expenses has come from dues, donations, and profits from the sale of bluebird-related items, along with corporate grants, awards from private foundations, and bequests. Our government involvement has always been centered in the effort to persuade agencies dealing with ecological concerns to direct some of their resources to the well-being of native cavity-nesting bird species.
The slogan “Effective Conservation” says it all. NABS has sought to educate, persuade, and enlighten the public in methods that an interested person could use to help bluebirds or other native cavity nesters. Chandler S. Robbins, noted ornithologist and author, has said that there is not much the average person can do to help the Bald Eagle or the Whooping Crane, but an individual can help the bluebird. The bluebird conservation movement has been truly a “grassroots” effort. The originators and leaders of many of the various state, provincial, and regional bluebird societies have served as officers and board members of the North American Bluebird Society. It is hoped that as NABS enters a new phase without its guiding lights, Larry Zeleny and Chuck Dupree, we can continue as they would want us to do, inspired by their memory and guided by their wisdom and love of bluebirds!
by NABS executive director emeritus, Mary D. Janetatos, 1996