GEORGIA ORNITHOLOGICAL SOCIETY’S
By Robert A. Sargent
Eulalie (Lee) Gibbs and Richard (Dick) Parks described the rich history of GOS and ornithology in Georgia in "A Golden Year for the Georgia Ornithological Society," which was included in the program for the Society's 50th anniversary meeting, held in Macon in November 1986:
In October 1996, Dick, Branch Howe, Jr., and Ken Clark updated that earlier history for the Society's 60th anniversary meeting, which was held on Jekyll Island.
The update that follows was written for the program that was provided to attendees at the Society's 75th anniversary meeting held on Tybee Island in January 2011. This version of GOS' history highlights a few events and people from the early years of the Society, but primarily focuses on the evolution of GOS since 1996.
Long-time members of the Society are familiar with the story of how GOS was founded by a gathering of 22 members of the Atlanta Bird Club (ABC; now the Atlanta Audubon Society) and Georgia members of the American Ornithologists’ Union at an Atlanta restaurant in December 1936. The goal of the founding members was to create a statewide, science-based bird club. They elected Herbert Stoddard, a noted quail biologist and fire ecologist, as the first president, and Stoddard promptly set the tone for the development of GOS as an organization steeped in science, rather than becoming a bird watching club. The founders bestowed an honorary membership on Roger Tory Peterson, the featured speaker at an ABC gathering the night preceding the charter meeting and one of those in attendance at that historic meeting. This was nearly 20 years before Peterson undertook his famous year-long, nationwide trip with James Fisher, counting more than 500 bird species and effectively kicking off the “birding bug” with the publication of his book, Wild America.
Although promoting bird watching and fellowship among those interested in birds has always been a primary objective of GOS, the main thrust of GOS 75 years ago was the study and protection of birdlife. In fact, the Society’s stated emphasis on ornithological research was the key to the creation of The Oriole, which was conjured up by Norman Giles, Jr., and Don Eyles while riding in a streetcar in Atlanta in 1935. This ornithological bent was evident at the first meeting of GOS, held in Milledgeville in April 1937, but a desire to share the joy of bird watching with friends was also evident in the writings of those who were in attendance. The founders were not a bunch of stodgy office-bound researchers; they relished an excuse to go bird watching. The promotion of bird protection was accomplished in those days through the public education and letter-writing efforts of a dozen or more regional vice presidents who were fixtures in the Society’s leadership structure for more than 50 years. Members of the Society also promoted an interest in birds and their protection through programs arranged for Junior Audubon Clubs. In addition to the publication of a quarterly journal and programs featuring scientists at meetings, the Society promoted the scientific dissemination of information about birds through occasional publications, beginning with The Birds of Athens, Clarke County, Georgia, authored by ornithologist Thomas Burleigh in 1938.
Now, 75 later, the goals of GOS are essentially unchanged, although the tools its members use to achieve its goals have become more complex, the leadership structure has evolved to fit the times, and the percentage of non-professional scientists among the membership has grown. The fascination with birding has exploded in recent years, yet the Society remains first and foremost a science-based entity, evidenced by how it celebrated its 60th anniversary meeting jointly with the Association of Field Ornithologists. More than 230 people attended that meeting, and paper presentations by ornithologists were a key component of the event, much like they were during the Society’s first 40 years.
By the late 1990s, GOS members were deeply involved in assisting research and survey projects. The Georgia Breeding Bird Atlas project, begun in 1994 and continued into the early 2000s, utilized the talents of dozens of Society members, and the Society contributed funds to help pay for the publication of the subsequent book. At the same time, a committee led by Giff Beaton was engaged in updating the Annotated Checklist of Georgia Birds, which GOS would publish in 2003. Society members also collected data on behalf of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s new Great Backyard Bird Count, which started in 1998, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Swallow-tailed Kite survey, initiated in 1999. The Society’s members provided field help in support of projects associated with the Partners in Flight initiative, and they continued their tradition of participating in National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Counts and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Breeding Bird Survey. The GOS also continued its support of graduate students via the newly named H. Branch Howe, Jr., Graduate Student Research Awards (Branch passed away in 1998), raising the grant’s ceiling first to $1,500 and then to $3,000 by 1999.
The late 1990s witnessed much activity by GOS on behalf of conservation issues, including support for Cats Indoors!, the Georgia Heritage Fund, efforts to keep pets off barrier islands, establishing limits on horseshoe crab harvests, promoting shade-grown coffee, attempts to fund the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, educating the public about bird collisions with towers, and raising funds to support development of the Orange Trail at the State Botanical Garden in Athens. The Society at that time was just becoming involved in Earth Share for Georgia and the Environmental Education Alliance. The blossoming interest in birds during this period, including conservation concerns and the recognition of their economic value, led to the establishment of the Colonial Coast Birding Trail by the state in 1999 and the establishment of the Important Bird Areas Program by the National Audubon Society in 2000. Shortly thereafter the state would establish the Southwest Georgia Birding Trail.
The Society was busy adopting and adapting to changing technologies as the new millennium arrived, launching its website in 1998, courtesy of a grant from the Price-Campbell Foundation and the labors of Jim Flynn, and it was in that year that email communications among the leadership and members kicked off in earnest. The same year also saw the introduction of Georgia Birders Online (GABO), the brainchild of Sara Schweitzer and Steve Holzman. The advent of this Listserv led to dramatic growth in and dissemination of knowledge about bird distribution and arrival and departure dates of migrants, an explosion in birding intensity, and it brought more attention to such competitive pursuits as county listing, big years, and life lists. Before GABO, information about unique bird sightings was disseminated mainly via word of mouth and Georgia’s Rare Bird Alert (RBA). During the 1990s, Jeff Sewell transcribed a summary of seasonal bird activity from RBA postings for his “Field Notes” column, which was printed in the GOShawk. That column ended in 1999, when it was decided that significant sightings would only appear in the “From the Field” section of The Oriole. Speaking of The Oriole, the year 1997 was significant for the journal (and GOS), as Terry Moore retired as its editor after a remarkable 17 years at the helm, the longest tenure for an editor in the history of the Society. In the following year the journal received a facelift with the addition of new cover art: an Orchard Oriole courtesy of charter member Dick Parks, who had created the Society’s Laughing Gull logo in 1997.
The diversification of the Society’s activities, combined with advancements in communications technology and new conservation fundraising tools, led to an expansion of the Executive Committee in the late 1990s. It was during 1998 and1999 that the chairs of the Checklist and Records Committee and the Environmental Fund for Georgia (now called Earth Share of Georgia) were added to the Executive Committee. In 2002, the latter committee was expanded again with the addition of historian, created by Ken Clark, and webmaster, which at the time had been performed for more than 10 years by Jim Flynn. Appropriately, John Swiderski became the Society historian in the following year. As of January 2011, John has served in an appointed role for a remarkable 35 years, having worked as Society president, treasurer, business manager, and currently chair of the Earle R. Greene Memorial Award Committee, among other duties.
The Society’s governing committee was altered again with the establishment of the Chair of the Education and Outreach Committee in 2007, and the removal of the Editor of The Oriole from the committee during the same period. Producing The Oriole on a timely basis has been a frequent challenge for GOS over much of its existence, so the Executive Committee elected to remove the editor’s voting rights, thereby opening the door to paying a future editor for the journal’s production, should it prove necessary. (Note: As of this writing (January 2011) the editor has never been paid, as each editor in turn has refused to accept payment for services.)
In 2003, the Society’s long tradition of holding fall meetings, primarily on the coast, was temporarily shelved when a committee representing non-profit organizations, government agencies, and various birding groups in Georgia proposed the establishment of a coastal birding festival, to be held on Jekyll Island in October. Making this break from tradition was a difficult decision for GOS, but the consensus was that supporting the proposed festival would bring nationwide recognition to Georgia’s avian resources, would effectively highlight conservation needs in the state, and would enhance fellowship and teamwork among all Georgia parties interested in birds. The Society elected to assume the role of organizing the field trips and sponsoring nearly all of the featured speakers over the seven-year-run of the festival, as well as sponsoring the registration booklet costs in some years. To compensate for the loss of one of the Society’s semi-annual meetings, GOS established winter meetings, beginning in January 2005 with a joint meeting with the Alabama Ornithological Society in Guntersville, Alabama. In October 2010, GOS returned to its fall meeting tradition when 135 members gathered once again on Jekyll Island to celebrate ornithology and birding.
Starting 2005 with a winter meeting in Guntersville was certainly momentous, but in the following weeks that event would pale by comparison to what was going to unfold. In early 2004 GOS member and avid birder Bill Terrell passed away. A year later the Society’s leadership learned that Bill had bequeathed more than two million dollars in property and cash to GOS, an extraordinarily generous gift. Over the following year, the Society’s leadership attempted to discern Bill’s wishes and strove to set in place programs that would honor his memory by making a significant difference to avian research and conservation. Though the initial impulse was to help acquire sensitive lands, which led to the contribution of $100,000 to assist the state with the purchase of the Silver Lake tract in southwest Georgia, the Society’s leadership soon realized that even two million dollars can hardly make a dent in all the land acquisition needs in the state. Instead, the strategy that unfolded involved investing most of the money, which, together with other receipts, has allowed GOS to contribute roughly $100,000 per year over the past four years in support of research and management grants, as well as scholarships. As a result, and in keeping with the GOS goals of promoting science, education, and conservation, the Society expanded the Howe Awards (now $15,000 per year) and created 1) Bill Terrell Graduate Student Research Awards (now $15,000 per year), 2) Bill Terrell Avian Conservation Grants for habitat management by professional scientists, 3) Opportunity Grants for citizen scientists, and 4) Richard Parks Young Birders Conference Scholarships. This increase in grant moneys given has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of committees within GOS, and the investments have necessitated the establishment of an annual investment strategy, the creation of a finance committee, and complex annual audits. The efficient operation of the finance committee and the exceptional management of Society’s diverse accounts, expense and receipt spreadsheets, and audit documentation are largely attributable to the skill and dedication of long-time treasurer Jeannie Wright.
Along with the establishment of new grant programs, GOS has strived to support or create other meaningful programs designed to train future ornithologists and conservation leaders, co-sponsoring the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Youth Birding Competition each year since its inception in 2006 and, in 2009, creating Camp TALON, a week-long field camp for teenagers. The Society attempts to recruit the very best speakers in the country for its meetings, and has provided monetary support to help graduate students attend and give presentations at GOS meetings. The Society continues to ensure that science remains a key cog in its meetings, having initiated scientific poster sessions at its Valdosta meeting in 2002, and organizing scientific paper sessions at the Milledgeville meeting in 2004 and the Athens meeting in 2010. However, birding and fellowship are also essential components of every gathering, and these are reflected in the abundance and diversity of field trips scheduled every meeting weekend, as well as in the recent incorporation of a new meeting tradition called “Flocking,” which GOS borrowed from the Florida Ornithological Society (FOS). The speakers at each meeting generally represent a balance between programs about science and programs about birding. Interaction with neighboring state ornithological societies also continues to be of utmost importance, as GOS met jointly with FOS in Brunswick in 2007 and has partnered with other societies from the Great Lakes region to Florida to raise matching funds in support of Operation Migration.
In recent years the Society continues to utilize modern technology to improve its efficiency and effectiveness, scanning all of its publications and major correspondence and records onto CDs and DVDs. In 2010, Jim Flynn completed the monumental task of scanning volumes 1-71 of The Oriole onto one DVD. Changes in technology have also necessitated making numerous changes to the Society’s bylaws, including the establishment of a process whereby many Executive Committee decisions can be made via email. The bylaws have also been updated to include checklists for many Society committees and key personnel, including a revised manual for first and second vice presidents, a treasurer’s checklist, and checklists for the chairs of the Earth Share of Georgia, Checklist and Records, and Membership Committees. Many of the Society’s recent documents can be found on its website, including the bylaws, newsletters, and “From the Field” sections from The Oriole. The website also includes information about GOS’ conservation views such as a position statement on free-ranging and feral cats, and the website and a newly-created GOS listserv are frequently used to disseminate information to the membership about issues such as a recently approved take of Peregrine Falcons in Georgia, a proposal by some parties to privatize Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, and a proposed fee structure for accessing Georgia’s state parks. The Society’s commitment to the enactment of legislation on behalf of bird protection remains strong.
As the Society gathers in January 2011 on Tybee Island to celebrate its 75th anniversary, its members can find assurance and pride in the fact that the intent of the founders promoting ornithology, an appreciation of birds, conservation, and fellowship among those interested in birds remains firmly embedded in GOS. The Society’s membership and financial health are as strong as ever, and the number of young people interested in birds is growing. We celebrate science, birds, and birding at this historic meeting, but we should remember to also celebrate the vision and dedication of those 22 gifted people who gathered so long ago on that December day.