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Hartford Audubon Society Celebrates Century Of Conservation

By STEVE GRANT ?| Courant Staff Writer

September 24, 2008

It was a century ago, and members of the nascent Hartford Bird Study Club were doing things as they were done then. Each member went bird watching alone and reported back at the next meeting on what species were seen.

The club eventually would become Hartford Audubon Society, with more than 600 members, but in 1909 it was a small group just finding its way.

"For the first two years of the club, it never dawned on them to go birding together," says Frank Haviland of Simsbury, a longtime Hartford Audubon member who is researching the club's history for its centennial year, which begins in earnest next month with a daylong public celebration in Windsor and ends with the society's annual meeting in May.

After those first two years, group outings began, with participants traveling by trolley, then hiking sometimes 10 or more miles as they searched for birds, the women wearing long dresses. In its centennial year, Hartford Audubon will sponsor more than 70 birding outings.

Hartford Audubon is one of the state's oldest conservation groups, in the company of groups like the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which was founded in 1895 and is the oldest. Connecticut Audubon, a separate organization, was founded in 1898.

Its history spans enormous changes in society, in the environment, in bird populations. Some bird species common a century ago remain common today, like robins. Numbers of other species have increased or decreased, sometimes sharply.

An example is the bird that the club adopted for its logo the pileated woodpecker, a big woodpecker with a showy scarlet crest. In the early years of the club, members came upon a pair of the woodpeckers west of Mountain Road in West Hartford, assumed they were the only pileated woodpeckers in the state, and took the bird as the logo image. Within a few years, Haviland notes, they discovered that these woodpeckers could be found all along the Metacomet Ridge. Still, in the early 20th century the pileated was a most uncommon woodpecker in Connecticut.

Since then, as much open land reverted to forest, and as forests have matured in Connecticut, habitat for this woodland species has expanded considerably. The pileated is now found throughout much of the state, but especially in more wooded areas of western Connecticut.

The cardinal is a similar story. On April 3, 1917, the appearance of a cardinal in Elizabeth Park was big news for the club. Today, cardinals are ubiquitous in Connecticut, one of those species, like the red-bellied woodpecker, that expanded its range northward into New England over the past century.

At the same time, other species have door poorly over the decades. Bobolinks, which prefer wet meadows, are far fewer than they were a century ago, probably because suitable habitat has declined.

Organizations such as Hartford Audubon are invaluable in monitoring variations in bird populations, serving as an early-warning system for species in trouble. But they also are credited with instilling a conservation ethic in many of the people who discover the pleasures of birding.

"Bird clubs like Hartford Audubon have enormous value for the environment, especially on the local scale," says Margaret Rubega, the state ornithologist and associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. "People can't value what they don't see and don't understand; bird clubs get them out and looking at birds, and while they're at it, they can't help noticing that some places are better for birds than others. When your favorite spot for sandpipers gets filled in and paved over for a parking lot, you get an object lesson in how much it matters whether we build more parking lots, and where."

Hartford Audubon has a long history of conservation work, dating from its earliest years. Around 1910, U.S. Sen. George P. McLean of Connecticut turned to the club for its expertise as he championed legislation that would create an international migratory bird act protecting both game birds and non-game birds, many of which had been hunted excessively.

Only a few years later, C.W. Vibert, a prominent club member and a legislator, sought in the General Assembly a law that would have required cats, which can prey on birds, to be licensed just as dogs are. It failed though the issue continues to this day.

In the 1950s, Hartford Audubon was among the organizations that successfully fought for legislation forbidding hunting on Sundays. By the end of the decade, some members began to question whether the group's name adequately conveyed its mission.

"They thought the name did not indicate they were involved in conservation issues," Haviland says. In 1965, the Hartford Bird Study Club became Hartford Audubon Society.

Hartford Audubon's Family Field Day will be held at Northwest Park in Windsor, Oct. 5, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. The day will include special programs for children, including storytelling and a bird walk. Other events include presentations on falconry, raptors, reptiles and bats, each with live animals, along with guided bird walks, nature walks and a bird banding demonstration. The event is free. Further information, call 860-282-2473 or visit www.hartfordaudubon.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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