Audubon Society of R.I.’s New Director Takes Responsibility for Avian Protection
April 17, 2023
SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Take a walk in the woods with Jeff Hall and you will learn to appreciate the natural world in a whole new way.
Hall, the newest executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, has a deep appreciation of what it takes to maintain the hiking trails on the society’s nearly 10,000 acres of refuges: volunteers.
“We have a bunch of people who just monitor trails,” he said of the volunteers who spend time walking the trails to make sure they are clear, well-marked, and well-maintained. “They take a hike and report back if anything is blocking the trail, trees are down, etc.”
Hall said the Audubon Society has full-time staff on only a handful of its refuges. “The other ones are just open to the public” with no staff, he said. So the volunteers’ efforts to stay on top of trail maintenance are vital.
Birds as ‘gateway drug’
As you would expect of the head of the Audubon Society, Hall becomes animated when he talks about birds. But to him they are more than just pretty things to look at or listen to.
“I say birds are the gateway drug to environmental issues,” he said. “It’s the one part of wildlife that everybody sees. Everybody loves birds.”
People who may not observe more subtle changes in the environment around them notice when something about the birds they are used to seeing or hearing every day changes.
“When someone says, ‘I used to have blue jays on my bird feeder all the time and I don’t have them anymore,’“ he said. “It opens the door to a discussion about habitat. I ask them, ‘Do you put pesticides on your lawn?’”
Pesticides, he said, are one of the top three killers of pollinators, which feed the birds.
A prime example of a little education going a long way is the resurgence of eagles in North America, Hall said. Between the 1700s and the 1930s, the United States had a thriving eagle population, to the point where eagles were shot and bounties were offered for eagle carcasses because the birds were believed to be a threat to sheep and salmon. When eagle populations began to decline as a result, the federal government in 1940 passed the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which outlawed the killing and disturbing of eagles, as well as the possession of eagle parts, including feathers, eggs, and nests.
But with the increased use of the pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) after the 1940s, which caused eagle eggshells to become so thin they would easily break, the birds’ U.S. population declined to low of 417 nesting pairs in 1963. DDT was banned in 1972, and slowly but surely the eagles rebounded, with an estimated 316,700 eagles living in the United States now.
“People … got educated; they voted, they supported a ban on DDT, and then the birds came back,” Hall said. “There’s definitely hope. If people learn about nature, they begin to understand it, and they want to learn more. They learn to value it. And then they’ll work to save it.
“It’s really exciting to see that, frankly.”
Urban green space
According to Hall, the Audubon Society has a “relatively small” endowment and gets most of its land via donations from families or estates. “We totally rely on donors,” Hall said. “Most of our property has been donated to us.”
He said people often approach the organization with land they are hoping to sell or donate. “I’ve been in conversations with people with close to 500 acres of habitat they want to donate to protect,” Hall said.
When it came to the donation of smaller parcels, he said, the thinking used to be that it wasn’t worth the effort it would take the organization to maintain the property. But that view is changing, especially when it comes to city land, he said, citing the health benefits of getting out in nature.
“Those small spots are really critical, especially in urban areas, where they’re getting wiped out,” Hall said. “Normally, our philosophy has been we can’t take every small piece because we can’t monitor it. But we may want to revisit that, and say these small spaces, maybe they’re not critical for wildlife habitat, but they’re critical for humans.”
Studies have shown that children who spend time outside are happier, more confident, better at paying attention, and less anxious than children who spend more time indoors.
Hall said Audubon was surprised to learn one concern that some urban residents had about spending time outdoors: safety. But it wasn’t human predators or the danger of injuries that were causing concern, it was natural predators, mostly bears.
“When we heard ‘safety’ [as a concern], we thought, well, maybe they thought a tree would fall on them,” he said. But it was, ‘There could be bears in there.’ They were really intimidated.”
So Audubon started a nature safety course. “We are trying to lower that barrier,” Hall said. “Anything we can do to lower barriers to getting people outside is top priority.”
What’s in a name?
Asked about the recent decision by the New York Audubon Society to drop Audubon from its name because John James Audubon was a slave owner, Hall becomes animated again.
He would like the focus to change from Audubon himself — a naturalist, woodsman, and painter who traveled North America in the early 19th century in an effort to document bird life — to why the organization was started in the first place.
Massachusetts cousins Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall founded what’s now known as Mass Audubon in 1896, after they learned of the cruel way birds were treated for fashion. (In the 1870s and ’80s, feathers were plucked from the birds while they were still alive, and some hats featured entire stuffed birds.) Hemenway and Hall, who both had a passion for birds, enlisted other members of their privileged social circle to fight for avian protection. They named their conservation organization after Audubon.
“They organized, they mobilized, and they moved an entire nation to create a bird movement,” Hall said. “But that story doesn’t get told, it’s about someone’s name.”
By 1898, state-level Audubon societies had been established in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Minnesota, Texas, California, and the District of Columbia.
“We believe the Audubon name doesn’t have anything to do with the artist — it’s a very strong brand about birds and conservation,” said Hall, explaining why the Rhode Island organization declined to remove Audubon from its name.
The Audubon Society is currently spearheading an effort to manage what it calls “responsibility birds.”
In its recent report, The State of Our Birds, Part 1, the organization described the disturbing decline of the state’s birds, and outlined a plan to identify and protect responsibility birds as a way to determine the current health and needs of these species and create management plans across Audubon properties.
The report identifies nine responsibility birds — chimney swifts, barn swallows, common yellowthroats, prairie warblers, eastern towhees, black-and-white warblers, wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and red-winged blackbirds — that are easy to monitor, with loud, distinct vocalizations and conspicuous habits. These birds will be studied intensely, including population size, habitat use, and nesting success. The nine birds are considered “umbrella species,” occupying similar habitats, eating similar foods, and nesting in similar locations as other birds; therefore, conserving one species may result in the conservation of other birds with like habits.
The organization is seeking volunteers who will be trained to monitor and collect data on the nine bird species on its refuges across the state and in Massachusetts. Those who are interested in joining the program can register for a training session here.