The following text is the original English version of an article published in French in the winter 2016 edition of Quebec Oiseaux
Tradition and Change:
The Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds turns 100
By Wayne Grubert
The year 2017 promises to be an incredible period of remembrance, reflection and, in many cases, celebration for Quebecers as we pass a number of major milestones. Canada will turn a respectable 150 years old, but that achievement pales in comparison to the longevity of the city of Montreal with its 375 years of existence. The Battle of Vimy Ridge in France and the Conscription Crisis at home, both pivotal events of our country’s World War I history, will be a full century behind us. Expo 67 put Montreal, Quebec and Canada on the map fifty years ago. Even the venerable Bank of Montreal will mark its 200th anniversary.
Partially obscured in the lead up to this astonishing array of events are the preparations of another group readying for its centennial celebration. One hundred years ago, on January 4th, 1917, an assembly of like-minded citizens gathered at the YMCA Hall in Montreal for the inaugural meeting of The Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds (PQSPB).
Informally known to its members as “The Bird Society” or simply “The Society”, the PQSPB was later incorporated by the Province of Quebec on April 29th, 1931. At various times in its history, debates have occurred regarding a name change for the organization and in 2005 the Board of Directors did adopt a new operational name, Bird Protection Quebec/Protection des Oiseaux du Québec (BPQ/POQ,) by which it is now better known. The society is proud of its continuing charitable status and the respected standing it holds as one of the oldest conservation groups in Quebec and Canada. Until 1955 the PQSPB was the only “bird club” in the province of Quebec. Twice in its history (1951 and 1991) the society has hosted the American Ornithologists’ Union annual meeting.
Key Founders – Lewis McIver Terrill and Edith Morrow
At that first assembly in 1917 (and despite his absence from the meeting) the participants elected one of Montreal’s foremost authorities on birds, Lewis McIver Terrill, as the first president of this fledgling organization. His association with the group in varying roles would last another forty-five years. Among so much else, Terrill was known for his fanatical record-keeping in the field and his diligence in transferring his notes into ledgers. Other noteworthy names from the list of those early members included Edith Morrow, who many feel was the driving force behind the society’s establishment. Indeed, glancing through the names of the society’s original founders and directors it is significant that there appears to be an equal sprinkling of men and women all brought together by their passion for the protection of birds.
Although predominantly an English-speaking group since its inception, the society’s history does intertwine with some of the Quebec francophone birding world’s well-known figures, including some who have served on its Board of Directors. Today a significant percentage of its members and directors are French-speaking and the Society is becoming more and more bilingual in all its communications.
Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 – Key Influences and Early Visionaries
But why 1917? It would seem that the last thing on people’s minds would be worrying about the fate of avian life when the storm clouds of war were raging over Europe, and shipload after shipload of young people were headed to an unknown fate. And yet, important events were happening on the conservation front. It is probably not a complete coincidence that the founding of the PQSPB coincided with the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1916 and that this agreement was in the process of being ratified on both sides of the Canada-United States border over the following two years.
In fact, one of the earliest lecturers at a society meeting was Dr. C. Gordon Hewitt who was Canada’s chief negotiator of that treaty. His suggestion of setting aside land for birds was probably the impetus for the PQSPB being instrumental in the establishment of sanctuaries on Mount Royal, including its cemeteries and Westmount Summit. As an aside, it is interesting that Dr. Hewitt was actually the Dominion Entomologist and encouraged farmers to promote suitable landscapes for insectivorous birds that would help protect their crops. Sadly, we still seem to be fighting for this visionary idea today.
The Cornerstones – Education, Conservation, and Observation
Although many birding clubs come into being simply to bring together people from a certain geographical area for the purpose of participating in outings and sharing sightings, the PQSPB/BPQ has always been so much more. The activities of today’s society can be summarized under three broad headings – Education, Conservation, and Observation – but the roots of these categories stretch back to the origins of the organization. They are in fact the three primary goals of the BPQ Mission Statement and lend themselves readily to the fitting acronym ECO. In one form or another and with varying degrees of emphasis depending on the era in question, these three cornerstones have shaped the group’s structure and activities from the beginning.
100 years of Education and Outreach
On the education front, the aforementioned founder Edith Morrow was passionate about teaching young people the importance of preserving birdlife in the Montreal area. She and others within the group felt that if children could be instilled with knowledge of birds and their habits then the future of bird conservation would be ensured. Thousands of children within the English-speaking community of Montreal received their first exposure to avian studies through classroom visits from dedicated society members during the initial decades after its founding. During the 1940’s and early ’50’s, Gladys Hibbard organized an annual “Children’s Lecture” for the society and even gave classes in bird identification out of her own home. Such activities, albeit on a more modest scale, have continued into the present day, with members of the Education Committee visiting classrooms of local elementary schools and aiding their host teachers with bird-related “themes” or projects.
Monthly Lectures – a longstanding Tradition
Monthly lectures given by society members or specially invited guests have continued almost unabated since the initial days of the group. Of course those early talks had to be illustrated with rudimentary media like Lewis Terrill’s own hand colored slides, or enhanced by imitations of various bird songs like those rendered by Napier Smith, a prominent early member. One can only imagine how those early attendees would react to modern PowerPoint presentations with the superb digital photos and audio tracks that are now available and which form the backbone of today’s lectures.
100 years of Conservation
It is perhaps under the conservation banner that the PQSPB/BPQ has most distinguished itself from other birding clubs in Quebec and Canada. Its early members were certainly aware of the precipitous decline of bird life that had resulted from market hunting and the millinery trade on a continent-wide scale in the years leading up to its founding. They were, however, probably even more attuned with what was happening at the local level.
The lack of bird life on Montreal Island was lamented in comparison to the surrounding countryside, and indicated that habitat loss, indiscriminate killing, stray cats, a general lack of knowledge of the needs of birds or wildlife in general and a myriad of other factors were all contributing to the falling populations. Thus began a series of initiatives on the conservation front that in many forms continue to the present day – acquisition and protection of habitat, promotion of the scientific study of birds, and support grants for groups having similar aspirations.
As mentioned, the society in its early years was instrumental in helping set up many private sanctuaries in the Montreal area. Others were established on public land in conjunction with various levels of government. Their main goal was to aid landowners in stopping uncontrolled hunting. While some of these areas have lost their official role as bird havens to the “progress” of urbanization or changes in government regulations, many continue to provide valuable oases of suitable habitat.
Creating Safe Refuges and Bridging Gaps
Mount Royal and its cemeteries, several golf courses and surrounding terrain, the Senneville area including the Morgan Arboretum, and Île aux Hérons Migratory Bird Sanctuary are just a few of the areas which continue to provide safe refuge for birds, and owe their existence in part to the early work of PQSPB/BPQ members. It is interesting that one of the society’s early presidents, V.C. Wynne-Edwards (elected in 1935) was far-sighted enough that he promoted closer ties with regional hunting groups concerning the establishment of these sanctuaries. It was his belief that the sanctuary system could not succeed without these groups being in agreement with the general idea; the struggle that ensued within the PQSPB almost cost him his presidency in 1939.
n 1937 an important milestone in the history of the PQSPB/BPQ and its sanctuary work occurred. In that year the society purchased Île aux Perroquets along the lower North Shore of the St Lawrence River for the price of $185. This small seventeen-hectare island near Blanc Sablon was at that time the only privately owned piece of land within the federal sanctuary. It is known internationally for its importance as a nesting area for puffins, razorbills and other seabirds and, with its purchase, became the society’s first official sanctuary. Others were to follow, either through direct purchase or as land donations from individuals who saw the society as a suitable owner to whom to bequeath their beloved properties.z
The flagship of the society’s properties is a major portion of the George H. Montgomery Sanctuary near Philipsburg, adjacent to the U.S. border and not far from Missisquoi Bay on Lake Champlain. Acquired in 1955, with substantial additions made in more recent years, this sanctuary consists of a variety of habitats, and is named for a prominent former president of the society whose original land holdings form a significant portion of the greater refuge area. It is home to many “southern” bird species not often seen in other areas of Quebec including Cerulean Warblers, and is also an important reserve for several rare plant species. This property is currently undergoing some important upgrades to its trail, boardwalk and viewing tower systems as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations.
Alfred W. Kelly, better known as “Alf”, is another name well known to PQSPB/BPQ members and now to the community at large. Alf was an active member of the organization, dividing much of his birding time between volunteering at the sanctuary in Philipsburg and enjoying his properties in the Piedmont region north of Montreal. However, Alf was a reserved man who lived very simply, so it was a great surprise upon his death in 1982 when it was learned he had bequeathed his Piedmont holdings and a significant amount of money to the PQSPB. It is because of his generosity that the society has been able to carry out many of its activities in land acquisition and support grants over the past few decades.
A substantial investment from this fund allowed the PQSPB to partner with the Nature Conservancy of Canada and others to acquire the land that now forms a major protected area in the lower Laurentians. The region borders Alf’s original properties in Piedmont and is named in his honour – The Alfred Kelly Nature Reserve. This area is probably best known to birders for its cliff-nesting Peregrine Falcons, but is important for a wide variety of fauna and flora species. With shrewd management by the BPQ Finance Committee, it is hoped that Alf Kelly’s legacy will continue to benefit wildlife into the foreseeable future.
Other Properties and Conservation Partnerships
Additional PQSPB/BPQ properties owned outright or jointly with other organizations include Ghost Hill Farm near Breckinridge northwest of Hull, Îlet-Vert and Île-aux-Canards in the St. Lawrence River near Varennes, Alderbrooke Marsh near Cowansville and small properties in Hudson and on Mont Saint-Grégoire among others. A number of similar properties have been preserved with the help of donations from the PQSPB/BPQ directly to other organizations including Nature Conservancy Canada, Ducks Unlimited and Duvetnor.
Funding Research for Conservation Projects
Also in the conservation arena, the PQSPB/BPQ has for many years made funds available for research both to organizations and individuals. Important projects carried out by the Tadoussac and McGill Bird Observatories, Le Nichoir Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, the McGill Avian Science and Conservation Centre among many others, have benefited from monies supplied by the PQSPB/BPQ Grants Committee.
During several recent years a special grant financed a team surveying more remote areas in north-central region of the province for the second Quebec Breeding Bird Atlas. Indeed, the organization played a major role in the production of the first atlas in 1996, providing field participants for the surveys as well as a significant portion of the funds needed for the publication of this extensive piece of work. Other grants to individual academic researchers and students have allowed them to carry out studies on a wide range of topics relevant to bird conservation.
Christmas Bird Counts – Montreal and Hudson Traditions
Besides atlassing, other citizen science activities supported by PQSPB/BPQ members include the organization of the Montreal and Hudson Christmas Bird Counts since 1929 and 1939 respectively. Numerous members have also participated in Breeding Bird, Marsh Monitoring and Owl Monitoring Surveys since their inceptions, thereby adding to our knowledge of avian population trends.
Three Decades of Montreal Hawk Watches
Members Bob Barnhurst and Mabel McIntosh have single-handedly carried out spring and autumn hawk watches in the Montreal area for over thirty years, and their dedication is beyond description. All this important work is ongoing.
Bird Fairs and Camps
Special outings aimed at families and new birders are also held on a regular basis, often in conjunction with other groups who also want to promote the welfare of birds. From 1985 until 2002 the PQSPB Annual Bird Fair showcased to the public the many clubs, organizations, businesses and artists with connections to birding and conservation in general. For many years through the 1990’s week-long nature camps were organized for both children and adults.
Interweaving Observation and Education
Of course observation overlaps considerably with the education and conservation aspects of the PQSPB/BPQ mission, but who would argue that the greatest pleasure that most members of any bird club enjoy is going out in the field and observing birds. Interweaving education and observation since its inception, when a very small core of skilled birders willingly passed on their knowledge during early trips, field trips hold a prominent spot in the organization’s history.
Weekly Field Trips
The tradition of weekly field trips continues into the modern era with experienced leaders and participants of all levels of expertise. There are obviously some noticeable differences, not the least of which is in the attire sported by the different generations. A glance at photos from the early years shows a much more formal approach in regard clothing choices with ladies in skirts and hats and men done up in jackets and ties. About the only clue that these were not just participants at a church picnic was the interesting array of footwear worn. Optical equipment has also obviously undergone radical changes from that visible in those original pictures.
Field trips were generally limited to spring and fall outings. Now excursions are held year round on weekends with extra outings during peak migration periods. Modern transportation allows for a wider range of venues, but that is a double edged sword as urbanization has, in general, forced birders farther afield to see greater species variety. Still, it is probably not wrong to say that field trips are often “the hook” which catches the interest of members of the public and brings in new members for the organization, but more importantly leads to an increased awareness of the modern conservation issues facing us all.
Carrying Traditions Into the Next Century
So “Happy 100th Birthday” to the Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds, a group that has carried out extremely valuable work and brought joy to its many members for a century all, incredibly, on a volunteer basis. May the traditions established throughout those hundred years continue to shape its future, and may the wisdom of a new generation of members continue to effect change where necessary.
Author’s Note: Much of the information contained in this article has been gleaned from the following sources.
- Arnaudin, Margaret Pye. “Birdwatching Sites of Yesteryear.” A Bird in The Bush, The Story of the Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds 1917-2002. Montreal: The Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds Inc. and Price-Patterson Ltd., 2002.
- https://pqspb.org Bird Protection Quebec website – especially information concerning sanctuaries.
- Arthur , Sheila,et al. (2007). Bird Protection Quebec (PQSPB) – A Thumbnail History. The Songsparrow: The Newsletter of Bird Protection Quebec. Vol. 49 No.3. page 7.
For information on how to get your copy of A Bird in The Bush, The Story of the Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds 1917-2002, please visit the BPQ Shop page.