The Immense Contributions of Irene Finley

by Ali Berman, Communications and Marketing Director

As is true in science, math, art, and beyond, women in the conservation movement have been downplayed, ignored, and, in many cases, forgotten by history. And yet, women have shaped Portland Audubon from its very beginnings, and continue to make up the lion’s share of our volunteers and staff. We’d like to begin to remedy those omissions, and share stories of women who’ve made immense contributions to Portland Audubon’s mission. And we can’t think of a better place to start than with the exceptional Irene Finley. While we can’t tell you everything there is to know about her—a lot of information has been lost over time—we can help you get to know her through her writing, advocacy, and photography.

Irene Finley with a camera on the ledge
Irene Finley at work

Many know Irene Finley as the wife of William Finley, one of the founders of Portland Audubon. That description is often where the conversation begins and ends, with her mentioned in passing, defined by her husband. Early in William’s life, his constant companion in his exploration of birds and nature had always been Herman Bohlman, who is credited as Finley’s equal. But when Bohlman decided to devote more time to his family’s plumbing business, leaving less time for wildlife photography, Irene and William became a powerful and inseparable husband-and-wife team. For decades, Irene and William would write and publish articles together, present lectures on their findings, and take part in advocacy initiatives, all while raising a family.

Irene was passionate about wildlife, and she defied the societal expectations of the time by writing and offering lectures both with William and alone, climbing mountains, and traveling to remote places, all in service of her mission to document nature and use those findings to protect birds and other wildlife. Because Irene and William’s work was done together, and almost always published under William’s name, it’s nearly impossible to suss out which photographs, articles, and discoveries belonged to her. It was only later in her career that Irene would start taking credit for her work.

“The Bat, a Winged Mammal,” an article that credits both William and Irene, is a prime example of how William’s name on something doesn’t necessarily mean he was a contributor. In the marginalia at the top of that article, William’s handwriting can be seen. He wrote, “written by Irene July 23 all night to 7AM July 24.”

Irene’s articles were rich with storytelling and natural history, her prose poetic, capturing the finest of details on a species or on the adventure to take the perfect photograph. Robert Sibley, editor of the California Monthly and professor at University of California, Berkeley, wrote about Irene, “She believes that natural history is not centered entirely on records, on species and all the other forms into which man has molded it; but that it is rather made up in part of the habits, behavior, instincts, and personalities as well.”

Irene Finley

With Irene’s love of natural history on full display, she describes Cedar Waxwing behavior and appearance as follows in an article on the beauty of Kodachrome images. “Waxwings are gentle bird folk. They can’t get along without the companionship and courage of the flock. They eat daintily and preen their warm mauve feathers till they shine like changeable satin, underparts paling to fawn, on their wing tips beads of red wax, and a pointed crest. They are leisurely homemakers and somewhat late, building a rather indifferent, coarse nest of bark, roots, twigs, leaves, and even bits of paper, lined with grasses, hair, wool, or anything at hand.”

Irene and William shared in almost everything, including their advocacy efforts. Within a few years of our founding, Portland Audubon was working hard to stop the slaughter of egrets, grebes, and other birds for their feathers. Despite Portland Audubon’s success with the passage of a law to ban the sale of feathers, plumes were still in fashion, and the hat trade continued to flourish in Oregon. After minimal progress through letter writing to Portland’s elite women, and to milliners, more drastic action needed to be taken. William and Irene worked with the police to put together a sting operation to catch milliners in the act of selling hats adorned with illegal feathers. As a clerk at Frakes Millinery Company showed Irene various hats, the clerk said, “You can’t get another one like it in the city. And these feathers are going to be the thing for fine hats this summer.” The clerk was shocked when the constable intervened, confiscating the large feather and several smaller ones.

Irene and William darted as fast as they could in a large red touring car from one milliner to the next, trying to catch them in the act of selling illegal feathers before word spread. In total, nine citations with fines were made that day to milliners and department store proprietors for selling egret plumes, causing hundreds of dollars of hats and other finery to be seized as evidence. Reports on the raids were published in newspapers across Oregon, and all the way to San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington D.C.

Irene’s advocacy extended to her writing as well in pieces like, “Effect of Oil Pollution on Sea Fowl,” an article she wrote after the SS Frank H. Buck collided with the SS President Coolidge, dropping 2,730,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, covering about 55 miles along the California coast. A count was taken on a stretch of 5.5 miles of coastline, revealing 452 dead birds. Irene wrote, “This probably was barely a drop in the bucket of the mortality of birds snuffed out by this oil disaster, but assuming it as an average if the full length of the coastline affected had been canvassed, some 6,600 murres must have been killed by oil…Lone murre, smudged of breast and rigid of wing, standing helpless on the sand, petition all powerful man to abate thy persecution.”

Irene Finley

Irene Finley’s contributions to Portland Audubon’s earliest efforts and to the field of conservation and ornithology are incalculable. We are grateful her grandson, William, and his wife, Carole, collected so much information about her for their book, For the Love of Nature: The Adventures and Achievements of William L. and Irene B. Finley. Thanks to family scrapbooks, they had an incredible collection of articles, stories, and photos to use as source material. And yet, it’s still not enough. Irene was a writer, photographer, educator, advocate, and expert on natural history. And all the while she was also a wife and a mother to two children. Her name and contributions should be known. I’d like to leave you with this note from William and Carole:

Irene Finley

“As Irene’s grandchildren, we were not aware of her contributions to wildlife and conservation. When Bill and I started our research for the book, we realized Irene’s expertise as an author, photographer, lecturer, and artist. We were amazed how she took risks but loved the adventures, from the Pribilof Islands to the Gulf of Mexico. We realized she worked with William as a significant contributor in her own right to the Finley legacy. We are delighted to share Irene’s story through our book.”