The Los Angeles Audubon Society: The First Thirty Years, Part 2 of 3

 by Glenn Cunningham

This article was originally published in the Western Tanager, Volume 50 Number 2 October 1983

SMALL SCALE BEGINNINGS

As might be expected, the inauspicious beginnings of the Los Angeles Audubon Society were characterized by small scale activities and accomplishments. Sometimes too small: "On September 28, 1918, the first business or directors meeting of the Los Angeles Audobin (sic) Club for the year 1918-19 was called to be held at the Times Building, at 1 p.m.  As only four members were present, not constituting a quorum, the meeting was postponed."

In December, 1918 the Chairman of the Membership Committee reported 12 life members, 1 honorary and 21 annual members, a total of 34, while the treasurer reported a balance of $98.88. By 1919 membership had grown to 80 members, but the same year the Pasadena Society boasted 200 members. In 1925, although membership had grown to 102, the treasury balance had fallen to $50.80.

Expenditures were not great, however, in 1926, for example, typical of the payments approved by the Society were $1.00 for postage stamps and $2.00 for the janitor at the State Building. Also in 1926 the Club was asked to contribute $5.00 to the District Federation Office to maintain the office and to pay the stenographer. To meet the obligation each member was assessed five cents.

But if expenditures were limited so was income. In May of 1935 members discussed raising the annual dues from $1.00 to $1.25 (plus 25¢ for the Tanager.) The motion was defeated.

FIELD TRIPS

Birding in the field was an important function of the LA Audubon Society from the earliest days.

The very first entry in the files of the Society, as stated above, reports that on June 4, 1914, an Audubon Field Day was held at Laughlin Park. From the park, the group walked to the Western Ave. entrance to Griffith Park. Twenty-four species were sighted and each bird and its actions described in detail in the report dated September 22, 1914 and signed by Carrie Fargo Bicknell.

The first officially sponsored LA. Audubon Society field trip reported in the records was that to Sunset Beach and Bolsa Chica on October 3, 1918.  Nine participants, led by Mrs. Robert Fargo, reported a total of 50 species.  The following month 20 people observed 38 species at Eagle Rock Park, and in December a trip to Old Stone Mill, El Molino, attended by 55, recorded 38 species.  Individuals continued to make birding trips by car, especially during the summer.  In December, 1918 Mrs. C. Hall, Historian and Recorder of Field Trips, reported on 18 trips during the summer to 14 locations.  "The total of 135 land birds and 7 shore and water birds included many rare and unusual species."

Once they were initiated, Society field trips were held monthly, except during the summer, and more than 40 locations were visited.  Most popular by far was Griffith Park with the groups assembling at the Western Avenue entrance (Fern Dell) or the Vermont Ave. entrance (Bird Sanctuary), or occasionally the Riverside Drive entrance and the old zoo site.

Shoreline excursions, as today, proved the most productive, especially Playa del Rey, Sunset Beach and Bolsa Chica, and Santa Monica Canyon and Beach.  In March, 1935, a visit to Playa del Rey beach and mud flats provided 69 species, the record for those early years.  Other areas that consistently produced more than 50 species were Sierra Madre Canyon and another site, no longer available, or even locatable, Sanford Bridge and Slough near Santa Fe Springs.

Many other unfamiliar names, places that have disappeared or been altered beyond recognition, appear on the list of field trip sites, among them Laughlin Park, Hazards Park, and Selig Zoo, Eagle Rock Park, Woodland Park in Whittier, Verdugo Canyon, the Arthur Letts estate, Audubon Glenn, Mandeville Canyon Botanic Gardens, and Bixby Botanic Gardens in Santa Ana.  Nor could the writer locate the Clyde Brown Studio on Pasadena Avenue in Arroyo Seco, the Kaust Art Gallery on Mulholland Hwy. or Miss Pratt's garden!

Close-to-town birding was, of course, easier before the intensive development of today.  For example, for the field day in January, 1921, a group of 41 met at the Church of Angels in Garvanza for a walk around Johnson's Lake "then across the field and hills to Eagle Rock Park," a feat that would be neither possible nor productive to duplicate in today's world.

Ninety-five birders joined the trip to Sycamore Grove in June, 1921 and in the words of the recording secretary "every member was thoroughly enjoyed by all 33 species of birds seen."

An entry in June 1923 reports... "Since October, 1922, we have held nine field days with an average attendance of 50, and a total of 130 species of birds in the combined trips."

Not always did these early trips meet with success.  In February, 1936, permission was requested of the President of the Gun Club in Playa del Rey to study water birds there.  Permission was refused.  And as today, weather frequently interfered.  Rain on the February 1935 trip to Lincoln Park discouraged all but two birders, who were rewarded, however, by sighting 33 species.  The all-time low was reached in February 1938 at Fern Dell with weather so bad that only one birder appeared and only one bird was sighted!

The first use of a bus for field trips was reported in October, 1927, when a Tanner Bus, costing $22.50, was chartered for a trip to Cabrillo Beach.  Participants were charged 75 cents for the trip and enjoyed birding the beach and walking on the breakwater to observe water birds.

Additional bus trips were later made to the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, Chatsworth Lake and to Modjeska Canyon accepting the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Tucker to visit their ranch home which later became the Dorothy May Tucker Memorial Bird Sanctuary following her death on August 19, 1939.

Apparently the first pelagic trip was made in May, 1938, to the Coronado Islands with the Natural History Museum of San Diego.

BIRD SPECIES REPORTED

The reports of species claimed on these trips (for which the author will accept no responsibility) reveal two items of interest, the first records of "new" species, species now more commonly sighted with the growth in numbers of birders; and the occurrence of uncommon species in close-in areas that are now shunned by both bird and birders alike.

A fitting introduction to the topic is the March 21, 1919, talk by the President who announced "...the number of birds now known to science is 12,000: (!) 1,000 in America; 564 in California; 337 south of the Tehachapi."

Among those "south of the Tehachapi" were the following: In December, 1918, "Mrs. Fargo reported on our newest bird, die white-throated sparrow, a very rare and unusual bird for Los Angeles." Other reports over the years included, in January, 1919, a Whistling Swan at Silver Lake; In February, 1927, a Townsend's Solitaire at Griffith Park; in October, 1927, an American Egret (not to be confused with Common or Great Egrets —Ed.) and an Avocet in Westlake Park; and in March, 1928, a California Black Rail ("a new species here") and 21 Knots at Playa del Rey.

In October, 1927, it was reported in Whittier that "the Cardinal has come home to stay," and in March, 1934, many were seen in Whittier's Woodland Park.

In December, 1928, a Black-and-white Warbler was found in Echo Park, and in October, 1929, a Canyon Wren and two Roadrunners were seen "near an oil station on Ventura Boulevard."

In October, 1931, two new birds were added to the list: a Frigate bird in Malibu Mountains, and a Light-footed Rail at the Del Rey lagoon."  In October, 1933 two White-tailed Kites appeared at Playa del Rey, and in November, 1935, the Los Angeles Times "reported seeing 16 Condors" but did not reveal the location.

In April, 1935, Mrs. Brennan was surprised by the visit of a Myna, and Mrs. Hall reported seeing 500 White Pelicans migrating near San Bernardino.  In February, 1938, it was reported that 33 species had been sighted on the grounds of Audubon House in Plummer Park.

Undoubtedly the rarest find was made in Griffith Park in February, 1929, when birders discovered nothing less than a Whistling Crow!

Earlier reports utilize species names long since discarded or relegated to sub-species, among them the Dark-bodied Shearwater, Pigeon Hawk, Desert Sparrow Hawk, Water Ouzel, Gambel and Belding Song Sparrows, American Crow, Green-backed Goldfinch, Willow Goldfinch, Spurred Towhee, Parkman's House Wren, Lutescent Warbler, Anthony Towhee, California Partridge, Willow Warbler, Calaveras and Pileolated Warblers, Russet-backed Thrush, Blue-fronted Jay, Anthony Green Heron, and the Magillary Warbler.

BIRD CENSUS Bird Census

According to an item in the scrap book, dated February, 1928, the Christmas Bird Census was launched in 1901 by the Biological Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  That first year 25 regional reports were received. The Census, now under the supervision of the National Association of Audubon Societies, currently (1928) receives more than 175 reports, the results being reported in "Bird Lore".

The first Los Angeles area count was made on December 26, 1915, resulting in 131 species, the largest of any, putting Los Angeles in first place, ahead of Santa Barbara, the former leader.  In 1916 the count was 106; in 1917, 108.

Although the second annual Census in December, 1916, produced only 106 species, it was still the nation’s highest of the 163 areas reporting, ahead of second place Santa Barbara with 102 and third place St. Marks, Florida with 85.  The areas covered, all to be "within 10 miles of the city limit" (?) included Los Angeles Harbor, Eagle Rock Valley, Silver Lake, Nigger Slough, Sunset Beach, Eaton Canyon, Benedict Canyon, San Fernando Valley and Hollenbeck Park.

Interest in an Annual Christmas Bird Count lagged thereafter.  In December, 1918, a motion to have such a count was defeated.  Again in November, 1922, but once more the motion lost because of the small district allowed.

During the next decade, however, another change of heart apparently occurred. The first suggestion came in December, 1926, with a motion to cooperate with the Southwest Museum Bird Study Club in taking a bird census.

At the November, 1928, meeting it was decided to hold the December meeting at Westlake Park (MacArthur Park), and to make it a Bird Christmas Festival as a tribute to the bird life of the Park. Members of the California Audubon Society and the Bird Lover's Club were invited to participate.

This became an annual event, and although statistics for most years are lacking, it was reported that in 1930, 31 species were counted.  In 1931, 70 people identified 30 species.  The 1932 Festival, with 45 present, netted 15 water birds and 13 land birds.  In October of that year a letter was written to the Venice Gun Club requesting permission to enter their grounds for a Christmas Bird Census but there is no record of response or results.

The October, 1931, report included the fact that 176 species were sighted during the last year, and the January, 1934 report contained the entry "Los Angeles Audubon Society headed the list of State Bird Census with 156, 20 more than in 1933."

Beginning with 1932 the Christmas Festival was referred to as the Bird Census.  It continued to be held at Westlake Park until 1937, when 78 members and 200 guests attended the first Christmas Festival at Plummer Park.

About this time the International Bird Census was introduced.  Although no other details were included, it was reported that the first years count (1932 ?) was 122 species, and the second year, 156. By 1938, the event was apparently well established for in December plans for the Bird Census outlined the national rules for it conduct as follows:

1. Give time of start and also temperature.
2. Each car should have two and not more than four observers.  One list from each car, signed by all observers and their addresses.
3. The estimate of mileage of the car and of the observers on foot should be taken, also length of time observing.
4. Hours should be six or longer. Time for observation —sunrise to sunset.
5. List each bird and total numbers of birds seen.  If any unusual record, give brief statement of it.

SELECTION OF STATE BIRD

In November of 1927, President Emeritus Bicknell announced her plans for the selection of an official State Bird. The choice, she suggested, "should be (a bird) on a protected list, one of economic food habits, and one found.  In April, 1935, Mrs. Brennan was surprised by the visit of a Myna, and Mrs. Hall reported seeing 500 White Pelicans migrating near San Bernardino.  In February, 1938, it was reported that 33 species had been sighted on the grounds of Audubon House in Plummer Park.  Undoubtedly the rarest find was made in Griffith Park in February, 1929, when birders discovered nothing less than a Whistling Crow!  Earlier reports utilize species names long since discarded or relegated to sub-species, among them the Dark-bodied Shearwater, Pigeon Hawk, Desert Sparrow Hawk, Water Ouzel, Gambel and Belding Song Sparrows, American Crow, Green-backed Goldfinch, Willow Goldfinch, Spurred Towhee, Parkman's House Wren, Lutescent Warbler, Anthony Towhee, California Partridge, Willow Warbler, Calaveras and Pileolated Warblers, Russet-backed Thrush, Blue-fronted Jay, Anthony Green Heron, and the Magillary Warbler.

THE WESTERN TANAGER

In September 1934, it was proposed that the Society publish a monthly paper to be called the Western Tanager. Volume I —Number I, edited by Mrs. Raymond Brennan, appeared the following month with the introductory words, "conceived with the idea of stimulating interest in our feathered friends."

The Western Tanager, (free to members, 50¢ a year or 5¢ a copy to others) was an immediate success, not only locally but nation-wide.  Copies of No. 1 were sent to the National and the Massachusetts Audubon Societies.  The latter responded with copies of its publication thus inaugurating a flourishing exchange program that currently (1983) involves more than 60 Societies from all parts of North America.

Mrs. Brennan, assisted by an Editorial Board appointed in May 1935, continued to edit the Tanager for its first two years, followed by Mrs. Maud Murphy, who served for the next several years.

The California Audubon Society announced in October 1938, that it had received a generous legacy and wished to contribute $5 a month toward the expense of publishing the Tanager, coupled with the request that, if agreeable, a page be devoted to their news items and that the Tanager be sent to all of their members at their expense.  It was agreeable, and the Tanager circulation immediately increased from 160 to 260.

Circulation continued to grow to die extent that by February 1968 the first bulk mailing was required, and eventually to the present circulation of 3700 (1983).

End Part 2

PART 1

PART 3