Audubon Documents Donated

Audubon Society collection donated to USF Libraries chronicles efforts to save Florida’s bird colonies.

                                                                                                                                                                    Video by Katy Hennig | USF News

By Katy Hennig

     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (June 25, 2014) - The graceful herons and spoonbills that call Florida home are the living legacy of a small group of people who were responsible for some of the 20th century’s most heroic conservation efforts.

A collection of journals and logbooks donated to the USF Tampa Library Special Collections by the National Audubon Society is providing a rare and valuable glimpse into early endeavors to save threatened bird populations at a time when conservation was not a priority for most Floridians.

Today we’ve become accustomed to the sight of blue herons fishing on the shoreline and ibises strolling through vegetation. But according to the documents, countless birds nearly became extinct in the early 1900s, when hunters sought to procure their elegant plumage.

Assistant Librarian Andy Huse calls the collection a “treasure trove” that sheds much-needed light on the intense conservation work that saved bird colonies in Florida and other regions, including numerous wading bird species that were on the brink of extinction.

“We’ve got records going back to the turn of the century, covering several different areas where there was bird-nesting activity that the wardens wanted to protect,” Huse says.

With limited state resources to cover the vast land, natural habitats, nesting areas and rookeries, birds were vulnerable to hunters working in the lucrative trade of plume feathers.

“Of course it was very fashionable in the late 1800s, the Victorian age, for women to have big ostentatious feathers in their hats,” Huse says. “By the turn of the century, it had become obvious that the bird colonies had been decimated by the plume hunters.”


The state deputized volunteers who worked with the Audubon Society to patrol the rookeries, focusing on areas of bird nesting activity near Tavernier in the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and the southwest coast of Florida up to Green Key in Tampa Bay.

The wardens took meticulous notes in their journals, detailing any activity near the nesting areas. They carefully monitored and recorded the number of birds in each habitat, species diversity, nesting locations, migration patterns and foraging activity.

The records include information about human disturbances and the presence of fishermen or poachers. The wardens interviewed every person they encoun
tered to ensure that no passersby were in fact poachers endangering and disrupting the environment.

Coordinator of Special Collections Matt Knight emphasizes the detailed nature of the wardens’ handwritten notes, where nesting area activity was documented in careful, pencil-drawn cursive.

“We have some records from 1901 and 1903 and a lot from the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Knight says. “This ledger that I have in front of me is from 1934, and it is fascinating. It includes intricate details. You can see, ‘April 5 1934, man and woman pass camp in a rowboat at 12 noon, said they were from Ft. Myers.’”

Notes in the archives indicate that the work was painstaking and dangerous. The wardens were unfailingly committed, venturing out in boats even in unpredictable weather in order to survey nesting areas.

In the early years of the patrol, plume hunters shot and killed two wardens. News of this violence spurred women’s groups around the world to take notice and shame others who continued wearing the feathered hats.

“The Audubon Society provided something that the state couldn’t, which was dedicated volunteers who were willing to do a job that wasn’t always very nice,” Huse says.

The daily observations recorded by the Audubon Society wardens led to the conservation efforts that eventually enabled bird populations to return to Florida.

“Sometimes that rebound can be agonizingly slow and sometimes it happens more quickly and people can see,” Huse says. “From the whooping crane to the blue heron, all these birds have been saved on the backs of the Audubon wardens and their work.”

Ann Hodgson, courtesy faculty member at USF Library and freelance biologist, worked diligently to help the library obtain the documents. Hodgson coordinated the donation with Peter Frezza, research manager for the Everglades region of the National Audubon Society, and secured the first set of collection boxes delivered to USF in March 2014.

The boxes had been stored for decades at the Everglades Science Center at Tavernier, in a humid environment that was not optimal for preservation.

After years of searching for a safe place to store the documents, Frezza made the decision to donate the documents to USF, where digital scanning will provide permanence for the delicate journals and enable the documents to be cataloged in a searchable database, available for the public to access and research.

“We were thrilled to hear the Special Collections department at USF was interested,” Frezza says. “It seemed like a great fit for these materials. We are glad they are staying in the southern Florida area as well.”

In acquiring the firsthand accounts of the Audubon’s efforts to save the plumed bird colonies, USF has become the new home of a significant piece of history that includes some of the only documentation on bird life.

According to Frezza, the information has been unavailable to anyone up until now. “It is a principal source of historic information on a plethora of bird species from many places throughout the country,” he says. “It could have important implications for anyone undertaking bird conservation in the areas where these wardens were reporting from.”

Here in Tampa, beautiful white and blue herons, flocks of ibises and the occasional wild spoonbill remind us how lucky we are. Without the efforts of the Audubon Society’s wardens, the elegant birds would be extinct.

“Tampa Bay was one of the main areas that was studied by the wardens,” Knight says. “Once these journals are digitized, some perspective is added, articles are written and publicity is generated, even someone who isn’t a conservation buff is going to say, ‘wow.’”

Special Collections at USF will play an integral role in disseminating the information within the journals allowing for additional ecosystems research. According to Huse, the records will unveil previously unknown information about the history of the Audubon Society.

“What the Audubon Society did in the past is borderline miraculous when you consider all of the things they were up against,” Huse says. “The fact that they saved so many species, and, in many ways saved Florida from itself or from the people here, is remarkable in and of itself, and that story hasn’t fully been told.”

Katy Hennig is a multimedia journalist for USF News.