History of the Buffalo Ornithological Society

The Buffalo Ornithological Society

by Michael Hamilton

image of book coverIn the mid-1920s, two men met while birding in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. They both had recently moved to Buffalo from the New England area, and they struck up a long lasting friendship. Their names were Clark S. Beardslee and Harold D. Mitchell. Forty years later, they would co-author Birds of the Niagara Frontier Region, still the most authoritative ornithological study of this region. They also conceived the idea of creating a bird-oriented society as an affiliate to the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences (the corporation under which the Buffalo Museum of Science now operates), and in November of 1929, the Buffalo Ornithological Society (BOS) was incorporated. Charter members were Harold D. Mitchell, John W. Aldrich, Clark S. Beardslee, Gardner Bump, James Savage, John Schmahl, Ray M. Verrill and Alfred Wander. Membership was on an invitation basis only, and full or active membership was conferred only when it was evident that a member was seriously interested in and devoted to the principles of the society and willing to work to further its purposes.

Six years later, in 1935, all three of the present bird counts were organized and initiated. The April and October Counts focused on duck migration and the May Count on warbler migration. In these early years, the BOS territory was bounded on the east by the Genesee River, on the south by the Pennsylvania line, on the north by Lake Ontario and on the west by Lake Erie and the Niagara Peninsula west to Port Weller and Dunnville and north to the Welland River. This territory was not yet divided into sections, so individuals were called and assigned to cover known “hot spot” locations. They competed keenly to be assigned to special areas such as the Niagara River, Oak Orchard Swamp, Braddock Bay, Rock House Point (as Rock Point was then called) or Mitchell Woods near Long Beach. At the end of the count day, the participants would met at some predetermined place and report their observations to each other and to the recorder.

Over time, observers recorded all bird species in their count reports. This meticulous record-keeping resulted in the documentation of not just ducks or warblers but of the total observed avian population of Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. To help all birders, the museum offered courses in bird identification and organized field trips to a wide variety of habitats in the territory. Some of the favorite destinations were, and still are, the Niagara River, the Ontario Plains, Rock Point Provincial Park and the north shore of Lake Erie, Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo and the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Anyone who was interested could join these expeditions; beginners received help from birders with advanced skills.

In 1955, there was a change to the eastern and western boundaries to make room for the newly established Genesee Ornithological Society of Rochester. The eastern boundary was moved west to a line running from Point Breeze south through Batavia, Pembroke and Pike, New York, and east to include all of Allegany County. The western boundary in the Niagara Peninsula was moved west to a line from Grimsby Beach southwest through Smithsville, Canborough, thence along Route 3 and finally south to Rainham Center. The total area so included measures approximately 15,470 km2 (5,973 sq. miles) in the United States and 2,109 km2 (814 sq. miles) in Canada.

Aims and Objectives

The original purposes of the society, as specified in The Buffalo Ornithological Incorporation Papers, were (1) to undertake “the scientific study of birds of the Niagara Frontier Region, (2) to keep records of species observed in the study area, (3) to provide for the interchange of birding experiences for the mutual benefit of the members, and (4) to protect and promote the welfare of all birds in this area. The Society [would] also hold meetings, lectures and exhibitions, and develop and maintain a library, in the interest of bird study and of the conservation of natural resources.”

Club Logo

BOS LogoJames Savage and Jack Schmahl, charter members of the Buffalo Ornithological Society, were walking across the Peace Bridge shortly after its opening in 1927, and one of them photographed a Common Tern flying over the bridge. They brought the photograph to the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences (the corporation under which the Buffalo Museum of Science operates), where Lewis Kalder was creating logos for youth clubs, and he made a drawing from the photograph. Subsequently, during a BOS field trip, a large colony of Common Terns was discovered on Gull Island (now Mohawk Island) near what is now called Rock Point Provincial Park, and it was decided that the drawing, with added graphics and text, should become the BOS logo. It was modified very slightly in 2000 to simplify and strengthen both image and text.


Harold Axtell, curator of biology at the Buffalo Museum of Science from 1947 to 1969, devised a system for the verification of rare bird sightings, the purpose of which was to make these sightings verifiable under scientific scrutiny and thereby dependable as scientific records.

In 1960, an article called “Noteworthy Records” first appeared in the monthly BOS publication The Prothonotary. This column, which has been included in each issue of The Prothonotary since, lists all species seen during the previous month that are, for various reasons, considered noteworthy. The birds may represent the first record for the year, the first or last record for the migration, unusually high numbers for a species and the like. Date of observation, location, number observed and name(s) of the observer(s) are included.

During these early years, the number of observers increased to approximately 150, but in 1966 an increased number of bird clubs in the United States portion of the BOS territory (Lake Erie Bird Club of Dunkirk, Cattaraugus Bird Club, Allegany Bird Club and the Jamestown Audubon Society) began participating in the counts, and the number of observers increased to approximately 250. This number has remained constant ever since.

In order to notify members of rare sightings in a timely manner, a telephone tree system was created whereby two subscribers, notified of a sighting, called two others, who in turn contacted two others, etc. If every one was at home or had an answering machine, all subscribers were notified very quickly. Of course, some were not at home, and some did not have answering machines, so the system was eventually abandoned. However, recent technology has now provided a system that allows an individual with a rare sighting to report it to a single number, after which all subscribers are very rapidly contacted automatically by phone and the message repeated. This system is working very well, and subscriptions now exceed 100.

To date, 22,197,801 individual birds have been observed during the three counts, April leads with over 10.1 million birds. October is next with over 7.7 million birds and May is last with over 4.3 million birds. The most species seen on a count is, interestingly, in reverse order with 216 species seen in May, 182 species in October and 142 species in April.

To further its goals, the BOS also runs an annual grant program that helps fund studies and the purchase of equipment such as mist nets for bird banders or optical equipment for educational projects.

Whereas BOS activities are focused on field observations and their recording, scattered scientific studies, such as the Bonaparte’s Gull survey supervised by Chip Weseloh in 1998, are also undertaken. Recently, a survey of bird populations along the Buffalo River and its tributaries has been initiated with the purpose of restoring riparian habitat in brown field areas. It is hoped that this project will lead to the delisting of the river as an “area of concern” by the International Joint Commission.

Our Society history, written by the late BOS member Michael Hamilton, is reprinted with the kind permission of John E. Black and Kayo J. Roy, the authors of Niagara Birds.

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