Volunteer Appreciation Week

by Vicky Medley, Volunteer Manager

What a year it has been! While we needed to pause on many volunteer activities, we were again astounded by the dedication of our volunteer community. As part of National Volunteer Appreciation Week, we are looking back over the last 119 years as we celebrate and honor the accomplishments of our Bird Alliance of Oregon volunteer community past and present, in addition to acknowledging the special contributions made by volunteers with our annual Mamie Campbell Award.

From our inception, Bird Alliance of Oregon has protected the environment and advocated for Oregon’s wildlife and wild places. Founded in 1902 as the Oregon Bird Alliance of Oregon Society, early members and volunteers met in libraries, homes and outdoors to educate themselves about birds, natural history and shared a love of wildlife. Not content to just gather and meet, the early actions of members defined us as a leading conservation organization rooted in education and activism

Historical Bird Alliance of Oregon photo

Beginning in the late 1890s Bird Alliance of Oregon leaders Herman Bohlman and William Finley spent years travelling the state to document and photograph species such as Red-tailed Hawks, Golden Eagles, Great Blue Herons, as well as rookeries, wetlands, cliffs, and forests throughout Oregon. Bohlman and Finley shared their vivid images and passionate writing with the nation, generating urgency to save habitat and create protective wildlife legislation. Their hard work, artistic eye and compelling message inspired President Teddy Roosevelt to create three wildlife refuges in Oregon through an executive order in 1907: Three Arch Rocks, Lower Klamath and Malheur.

In 1902 there were no federal or state regulations to protect wildlife. Wild birds (not just game birds) were sold for food in markets, and fashion at the time called for decorative bird plumage, mostly on women’s hats. In 1903, Bird Alliance of Oregon was involved in passing some of the state’s first bird protection laws. Despite the new laws, fashion still fueled a thirst for bird plumage, and the global “plume boom” resulted in the slaughtering of millions of birds for their feathers. Here in Portland, the Bird Alliance of Oregon Society members wanted to do their part to stop the carnage. They sent every lady in “‘Portland’s Blue Book’ a set of leaflets describing how their plumes were gathered in bloody destruction of whole colonies, with fledglings left to starve in their nests” (“Our First 50 Years”, Bird Alliance of Oregon Warbler, May 2002).  Now we reach our volunteers through emails and social media, and back then we used the Portland Blue Book!

Bird Alliance of Oregon volunteers not only established a voice in conservation, but also in education. Our founding volunteers know what we still hold to be true: people will protect what they love. In the 1920s and 30s A.L and Mamie Campbell created the “Junior Bird Alliance of Oregon Club”, with a school Nature Study Program. The program lasted 35 years, and helped to inspire local children to learn about and love birds. By 1939 the Junior Bird Alliance of Oregon club had 2,784 members!

As is the case with those early actions, much of what we do today was begun or heavily supported by volunteers.A few volunteer highlights from the last 119 years include:

    • Our first documented Christmas Bird Count was in 1926, and volunteers tallied 51 species. In that first count, a group of 8 men and women leaders lead the count on Sauvie Island, the Columbia Slough, Mt. Tabor, Portland Heights, Kenton, Gladstone and St. Johns. 
    • In the late 1930s Henrietta Eliot, wife of Bird Alliance of Oregon President Willard Ayres Eliot began accepting injured wildlife and caring for them in her home. In many ways, that was the birth of the Wildlife Care Center. The rehab program went dormant for several decades, and had a second wind in the 1970s. In a 2002 article describing the Wildlife Care Center history, then Care Center Director (now Conservation Director) Bob Sallinger, wrote “During the first three years of its existence, the Care Center was run almost entirely by volunteers and volunteers remain the backbone of this facility to this day”. That rings true, even in a pandemic year! 
    • In the 1940s volunteer Norm Seaman hand dug the pond and built the gazebo above it. Today, volunteers still tend to the pond, and visitors gather daily under the gazebo.
    • The Rare Bird Alert was launched by volunteers Jeff Gilligan and Harry Nehls in 1977. Harry oversaw the Rare Bird Alert until late 2019, one of our longest standing commitments!
    • Harry Nehls soon after also launched “Birders Night” in 1979, where birders would gather at Bird Alliance of Oregon to hear about rare sightings. Birders Night has been on hiatus during the pandemic.
    • In 1980 volunteers Meno and Hildy Hulen organized the first “Wildlife Arts and Crafts Show”, later named the Wild Arts Festival. It was initially hosted at Bird Alliance of Oregon, but quickly outgrew the space. Over the years it has changed locations several times, and was virtual for the first time in 2020.
    • Birdathon, one of our most successful and popular fundraisers, began in 1981. Over the years thousands of Bird Alliance of Oregon volunteers and supporters have gathered pledges and counted species to help raise essential funds. 
    • In 1983, volunteer LeRoy Schaap launched Nature Nights, free monthly events for members and the public. 
    • Swift Watch began in the early 1990s, as growing numbers of Vaux’s swifts began to use the Chapman Elementary School chimney as a roosting site. Volunteers organized educational materials, which helped endear all of Portland to the swifts, and work together to protect the chimney.
    • In 1997 volunteers and staff began the Native Plant Restoration Project, aimed at removing English Ivy and replanting our sanctuary with native plants. The Native nursery has wound down in recent years, but it still tended by volunteers. 

It is tough to list all of the conservation efforts and wins over the years that have been led and supported by Bird Alliance of Oregon volunteers! The three refuges that were established by President Roosevelt was just the beginning. Volunteers and members advocacy led to the establishment of Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge; William Finely, Baskett Slough and Ankeny National Wildlife Refuges in the Willamette Valley, among others. Volunteers have supported the protection of imperiled species like the Northern Spotted Owl, the Marbled Murrelet, the Greater Sage Grouse, Streak-horned Lark, Westen Snowy Plover and California Condors. Volunteers have helped Bird Alliance of Oregon become a pioneer in the field of urban conservation, recognizing that protecting nature close to home is critical to the health of our communities. From our urban areas, forests, grasslands, coastal marine habitats, to Central and Eastern Oregons, Bird Alliance of Oregon volunteers have been the backbone for our success.

As we look through our history, we could not help but notice that some things never change in the volunteer landscape: parking and blackberries! Volunteer Al Miller, who renovated and expanded our parking back in 1973 commented “For as long as any of us can remember; the parking lot at Bird Alliance of Oregon House has been a pain in the neck”. Our first invasive plant work party was in 1946, to remove Himalayan blackberry- the first of many!

While 2020 was a challenging year, our volunteer community has remained committed and connected  to our mission. Thanks to our volunteer community:

    • Our Wildlife Care Center continued to provide essential services to wildlife, treating over 4,000 animals and received over 10,000 phone calls. Volunteers answered phones from home and worked in new roles outdoors to help with patient care, as well as transporting wild patients, gathering greens, and caring for birds that are close to release.  
    • Our Backyard Habitat Certification Program thrived. 260 new sites achieved certification in 2020, for a total of 56 more acres and more than 20,000 native plants!
    • Our Nature Store remained open! Bird feeders, masks, and bird food were in hot demand this year, and a small and socially distant team of volunteers helped keep the store humming in new ways.
    • A tremendous amount of work was accomplished in our Wildlife Sanctuary. Volunteers removed more than an acre of invasive blackberries, oversaw the care of the Native nursery, tended and improved trails and now lead a regular and robust weekly work party.
    • Community Science had a booming year. Volunteers spent over 4,300 hours gathering data which enables us to more effectively accomplish our conservation efforts and help influence public policy.
    • Many volunteers worked from home over the last year, helping with data entry, cataloguing specimens, answering phone calls to the Wildlife Care Center, etc. 
    • Volunteers, members, supporters and fans advocated over the year for conservation action related to rocky habitats, the Northern Spotted Owl, Beavers, Cormorants, light pollution, Coyotes, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Ravens, a ban of the bird poison Avitrol, Salmon,  protection of the Elliot State Forest, the Portland tree canopy, the Willamette Cove, and more.

We look forward to the future, and are grateful for the past accomplishments. Bird Alliance of Oregon volunteers, YOU play a critical role in every aspect of our work; we could not do it without you. Thank you!  


Group of people with optics looking forward