Audubon Society

The National Audubon Society was founded in 1886 by George Bird Grinnell in memory of naturalist and artist John James Audubon. Audubon documented America's 1065 birds for his book Birds of America. Though the society's focus is the preservation and study of bird species, it now protects animals and their habitats. With over 600,000 members and 500 chapters in America, the society lobbies for passage of important environmental policies (such as, the Endangered Species and Clean Air acts).


The National Audubon Society is an organization dedicated to the protection of animals and their habitats. Its main focus is on the preservation and study of bird species. The Audubon Society has over 600,000 members, 500 community-level chapters, and offices in twenty-seven U.S. states. There is also a network of Audubon nature centers throughout the United States.

Members of the Audubon Society work to protect animals and their habitats by encouraging the government to pass laws that promote conservation. The Audubon Society also sponsors educational programs for young people. Since the 1930s, scientists have been using the Audubon Society’s sanctuaries as places to study animals, ecosystems, and the effects human activities are having on each of them.

Historic Roots

The Audubon Society is named after John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon was born in Haiti, raised in France, and, when he was eighteen, moved to the United States to live on his father’s estate in Pennsylvania. It was here that he spent a great deal of time observing birds and conducted the first documented bird banding experiment in America. After winning the trust of a family of birds, he attached light threads to their legs so he could identify them if they returned to their nesting site.

Though he was passionate about drawing and studying birds, Audubon decided to go into business in 1806. He opened a general store and a trading firm in Kentucky but did not have great success. He declared bankruptcy in 1819.

Audubon decided to give up business and pursued his dream of depicting all of America’s birds. His goal was to document a complete collection of all birds in America. He traveled by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and painted life-size portraits of the birds he saw. He wanted to make the portraits into a collection of prints called Birds of America. He was unable to get sufficient support for the project in America, so he brought the first part of the collection to the United Kingdom in 1826, where it met with great success. His wolf skin coat, long hair, and stories about the wilderness earned him the nickname of “American Woodsman.” People were fascinated by him and his work and, in England and Scotland, he found printers who were willing to reproduce it.

After returning to the United States, Audubon traveled across the country several more times until he had created 435 paintings for Birds of America. The number of birds depicted totals 1065. The collection is still studied and highly respected by wildlife artists today.

It is important to remember that Audubon did not only paint birds. When he was not in the wilderness, he painted portraits of people and worked as an art instructor. The other animals he saw on his journeys in the wilderness also fascinated him. During a trip to the western United States, he created a collection called The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which features American mammals.

In the memory of Audubon and his commitment to birds, exhibited through his work, George Bird Grinnell founded the Audubon Society in the late 1800s, years after Audubon’s death. At this time, people were killing birds in great numbers. Birds and their eggs were being used for food, and their feathers were used as decorations for hats. There were no laws to protect them, resulting in the extinction of several species, including the passenger pigeon and the great auk. Grinnell was one of the first people to protest the thoughtless killing of birds. In 1886, he founded America’s first organization dedicated to their protection. As a child, Grinnell had been tutored by John Audubon’s wife, Lucy, and was inspired by Audubon’s love of birds. For these reasons, he named the organization in honor of Audubon.

Only three months after it was founded, the organization had over 30,000 members. The magazine Grinnell edited, Forest and Stream, had helped to popularize it. In 1888, he had to disband the society because it was far too large for him to manage effectively.

In 1896, a group of women who shared Grinnell’s opinions on birds founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society. They boycotted clothing that used bird feathers and encouraged the general public to do the same. By 1899, there were Audubon societies in sixteen other states.

In 1901, some of the individual Audubon societies decided to become more closely affiliated with each other and called themselves the National Committee of the Audubon Societies. Several years later, in 1905, they reorganized into an organization called the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals. In 1940, the name was shortened to the National Audubon Society.

The organization began to work to give birds protection under the law. Early successes included the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 and the New York State Audubon Plumage Law of 1910.

The Audubon Society bought tracts of land to use as wildlife sanctuaries. The largest one is the Paul J. Rainey Sanctuary, which measures 26,000 acres. The society encouraged the federal government to do the same, helping to bring about the National Wildlife Refuge system.

During the 1960s, organization became more interested in using laws and policies to protect wildlife. The society opened its own office in Washington D.C. and aided the passage of some very important environmental policies, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Today, the Audubon Society continues to study birds and ecosystems, educate the public, and push for environmentally-friendly legislation. In recent years, for example, it has worked to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and logging in national forests.


The National Audubon Society is dedicated to the protection of the natural environment. As a national organization with 600,000 members, 500 chapters, and offices in over half the states, it is a strong voice before lawmakers. Without a national organization, birds, other wildlife, and the ecosystems in which they live, would have to be protected at the state or community levels alone. This would not always be possible in areas where financial and educational resources are not sufficient or where human activities such as logging and development are a high priority.

The Audubon Society’s strategic plan for the 21st century is to promote “a culture of conservation across the nation” (National Audubon Society 2003). One of its goals is to have 1000 Audubon centers across the nation by the year 2020, with a focus on urban areas. By making natural areas and information about conservation available to more people, the Audubon Society will help to ensure the future of our natural environment.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Audubon Society depends on financial support and the volunteer work of its members to remain an effective organization. Without these resources, the society would be less able to educate the public, support environmental causes in the government and court systems, and work directly with wildlife and the environment.

One of the society’s goals is to have all Audubon centers receiving at least one-third of their income from endowments. It takes considerable initial financial support for a center to reach a point where this is possible. For this reason, the society depends on the support of outside people and organizations.

Key Related Ideas

Clean Air Act: The Clean Air Act of 1970 established limits on levels of air pollution.

Clean Water Act: Passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act’s goal is to protect water from pollution.

Conservation: The study of the sustainable use and protection of the earth’s resources.

Ornithology: The study of birds.

Wildlife Art: Drawings, paintings, and other forms of art depicting animals in their natural environment.

Important People Related to the Topic

John James Audubon: Wildlife artist and outdoorsman whose work includes Birds of America, a famous collection of paintings featuring portraits of American birds.

Lucy Audubon: Audubon’s wife. She worked as a governess and teacher so that Audubon would be free to travel and develop his artistic talent.

George Bird Grinnell: One of the first people to speak out against the killing of birds and the destruction of their habitats. Grinnell was the founder of the National Audubon Society.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Sierra Club: Founded in 1892, this organization promotes the responsible use of the earth and its resources and supports the protection and restoration of the natural environment.

WildAid: This action-oriented organization is dedicated to the protection of wildlife through law enforcement, education, community outreach, and habitat protection.

Windstar Wildlife Institute: This national conservation organization uses education to prevent the loss of native plants, animals, and habitats.

Related Web Sites

There are hundreds of regional, state, and community-based Web sites dedicated to the protection of birds and other wildlife. Significant national ones include:

The Institute for Bird Populations Web site, at, provides information on the institute’s research, publications, internships, training and membership. The organization is dedicated to the research and understanding of the dynamics of bird populations worldwide.

Partners in Flight U.S. Web site, at, provides information on resources, meetings and events; and gives insight on bird conservation planning. The organization is concerned with declines in bird populations. Initially focused on migratory birds, this organization believes that North and South America must work together to give bird populations as much help and protection as possible. In recent years, its focus has spread to include other bird populations.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site, at, contains information on educational resources, laws, business opportunities, key topics (such as air and pollutants), and updates on legislative policies. The mission of the EPA is “to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment – air, water, and land – upon which life depends” (U.S. Environmental Protection 2003).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, at, provides information on the federal department that works to protect wildlife, including the populations and habitats of more than 800 species of birds.


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This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.