In the mid-nineteenth century, wildlife was abundant: "there are so many birds they will never be missed, any more than mosquitoes!" By the 1880's, observers noted dramatic decreases in the numbers of small birds. Birds of all sizes had become targets of plume hunters. Feathers from orioles and warblers to herons, sandpipers, and even crows appeared on fashionable ladies' hats.
"Nearly all the ladies wear bird skins or heads or wings," wrote Dr. George Bird Grinnell, an ornithologist who published Field & Stream Magazine in New York. Grinnell was especially concerned that trade in egret feathers was exterminating whole populations in south Florida.
In February 1886, Grinnell spearheaded an organization for the protection of birds: "The land which produced the painter naturalist John James Audubon will not willingly see the beautiful forms he loved so well exterminated." Florida bird populations were the focus.
By August 1886, 11,000 members had pledged not to harm birds, destroy eggs or nests, or "make use of feathers for dress or ornament." By February 1887, one year after its founding, the Audubon Society had 39,000 members. In April, Dr. Grinnell published the first issue of The Audubon Magazine. The magazine's contents included articles on the life and works of John James Audubon, natural histories of birds, stories for young readers, and an occasional lecture such as "Man the Destroyer" on extinction, a poorly understood concept.
A woman from Boston published a brave article with the title "Woman's Heartlessness." "When the Audubon Society was first organized," she confessed, "we flattered ourselves that the tender and compassionate heart of woman would at once respond to the appeal for mercy. But after many months of effort, we are obliged to acknowledge ourselves mistaken ... Not one in fifty is found willing to remove at once the birds from her ... hideous headgear." "Flit, sand piper," she warned, "from the sea's margin to some loneliness remote and safe from the noble race of man! Year after year you come back to make your nest in the place you know and love, but you shall not live your humble, blissful, dutiful life, you shall not guard your treasured home, nor rejoice when your little ones break the silence with their first cry to your for food. You shall not shelter and protect and care for them with the same divine instinct you share with human mothers. No, some woman wants your corpse to wear on her head!...Yet how refreshing is the sight of the birdless bonnet!"
Thanks to early voices of outrage, today, the Audubon Society is one of the largest private conservation organizations in the world.