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Our founding editor recalls the early days

Our first issue and our 200th: February 1987 and April 2020. Cover photos: Evening Grosbeak by John Shaw and Western Tanager by Andrej Chudy/Shutterstock

When Editor Matt Mendenhall called to let me know that another milestone was coming up for BirdWatching, I was immediately interested. “It’s the 200th issue,” he said, “and the 34th year.” I thought back to an earlier milestone when former Editor Chuck Hagner called me in 2011 to remind me that 2012 would be the 25th anniversary of the magazine, which started as Birder’s World in 1987 with 13,667 subscribers. That was huge. And it’s still going.

The memories of the concept and launch began to flow as I relived that exciting and somewhat hectic time. My idea to start a birding magazine didn’t develop slowly over time but as a bolt of lightning during the night of November 3, 1980. Why then? No idea. I had trouble falling asleep and started pondering my future and things I might want to do. All of a sudden, the need for a high-quality magazine for birdwatchers was clear in my mind.

The next day was spent flipping through magazines, selecting elements that would create the perfect birding magazine. Then came the challenge of building a dummy issue, complete with articles, repeating departments, special features, and advertising.

Artist and field-guide author Roger Tory Peterson reads our first issue. Photo by Russ Kinne

Some years earlier, I had met Roger Tory Peterson, the genius behind modern field guides, who published the first one in 1934 and is widely known as the “Father of Birdwatching.” It was a wonderful time, and I learned that he had a great feeling for the birding market, and, importantly, he was the nicest person.

As my magazine researched continued, I made a meeting with Peterson my No. 1 goal. I sent him a detailed packet about the magazine and asked if we could meet to discuss it. He liked the idea and was interested in getting together. He had a book tour coming to Cleveland, and an 8 a.m. meeting was arranged for us at the Museum of Natural History. This, the most important meeting in the history of the magazine, was almost torpedoed by a bunch of children. Let me explain.

I arrived at the museum early and was ready. Everything I wanted to show and explain to him was neatly laid out. Peterson, a very responsible person, was uncharacteristically late. I was anxiously watching the clock. I had been told the end of our meeting was a hard deadline because he had to leave.

Shortly, a woman arrived, smiling, and said Roger would be right up. She said, “Sorry he’s late.” She continued that Roger got to the building on time, but the first-floor “bird lobby” was filled with three busloads of elementary students. “It’s not possible for Roger to pass through a room of youngsters and birds and not stop,” she explained. “He’s been asking and answering questions all this time.”

We had a great but somewhat shortened meeting. He felt bad for being late and invited me to his studio in Connecticut for two days to further discuss the magazine and how he might contribute. Did I hear that right? Did he say “how he might contribute?” He did. Talk about exciting.

More than a number

Eldon Greij
Eldon Greij established Birder’s World magazine and continues to write our “Amazing Birds” column.

To mark the occasion of the 200th issue, Matt asked me if the number 200 had any special meaning for me as a birder. It did. Early in the magazine’s development, Pete Dunne of New Jersey Audubon developed his idea for a “World Series of Birding.” He envisioned a 24-hour — midnight to midnight — highly competitive birding contest restricted to New Jersey and centered at Cape May Point State Park during mid-May. Such an event could lead to the magical number of 200 different bird species counted in a single day.

Birders wanting to participate would form teams and find a sponsor who would pay a fee and help with costs. Team members would obtain pledges from friends and fans for each species counted. Given the goal of 200 bird species, a pledge of 20 cents per species could yield $40, and $1 per species could bring in $200. There was also the possibility of larger donations from corporate sponsors. All funds raised would support bird conservation.

At the first World Series of Birding, in 1984, Pete fielded an all-star team: himself, Roger Tory Peterson, David Sibley, the late, great Pete Bacinski, and author Bill Boyle, and they promptly set the contest’s standard, recording 201 species, including a way-out-of-range Fork-tailed Flycatcher. In the 36 years since then, only handfuls of teams have surpassed their total.

Since 1984, Pete’s brainchild has raised about $9 million for bird conversation. So, yeah, the number 200 means something special to us birders. Thanks, Pete.

What’s next

Birdwatchers going forward face a very difficult task. Conservation efforts continue to lag behind what’s needed. You probably know that a recent study shows more than a 25 percent loss of birds (totaling over 3 billion individuals) over a wide range of species during the past 50 years. The need to get more people involved with bird conservation has never been greater.

 One remedy is to support the World Series. Another is to join a good bird conservation organization. See the sidebar below for examples.

Wetlands and grasslands are two of the most critical habitats for bird survival. Both face intense competition from development and agriculture. Anytime you’re looking at a natural habitat that looks great for birds, you can be assured that someone else is looking at the same property for some kind of development. Usually, the developer is willing to pay more than one wanting to preserve it. That’s why we need to work together.

Birdwatching is an exciting pastime and hobby for millions of North Americans and our brothers and sisters around the world. Once we thought birdwatching was enjoying a free resource. It’s becoming less free every day. Actually, it was never free, but we didn’t realize it. Now we know. Please help. And thanks to everyone who subscribes to this magazine and reads its online offerings; it has been an amazing ride.

For the birds

A sampling of conservation groups worth supporting:

American Bird Conservancy

Bird Canada

BirdsCaribbean

Center for Biological Diversity

Earth Justice

Fundación ProAves

International Bird Rescue

International Crane Foundation

National Audubon Society

National Wildlife Federation

Nature Conservancy

Sierra Club

Wild Ones

World Migratory Bird Day

And finally, support your state, provincial, and local bird clubs, Audubon chapters, and bird observatories!

This article was first published in the March/April 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine, our 200th issue.

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Eldon Greij

Eldon Greij

Eldon Greij is professor emeritus at Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, where he taught ornithology and ecology for many years. He is the founder of Birder’s World magazine and the author of our popular column “Amazing Birds.”

Eldon Greij on social media