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The 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty has been a powerful piece of American conservation legislation for 100 years, but few know about the important role a children’s author played in its passage.

Journalist and Good Housekeeping editor Thornton W. Burgess never expected to be a children’s author. But after his first book, Old Mother West Wind, was published by Little Brown in 1910, other titles followed and soon attracted a voracious audience. Combining a strong writing background with his deep love of nature, Burgess poured out children’s books and daily newspaper stories that catapulted him, Jimmy Skunk, Reddy Fox, Grandfather Frog and dozens of other characters into the hearts and homes of readers throughout the country. In less than 10 years Thornton Burgess was credited with reaching “millions of children” with his predominate theme of respect and stewardship for nature.

At that time, one of the most influential men in American conservation was Dr. William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, now the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday was a fiery, often abrasive wildlife activist, author, and lobbyist widely credited with saving the American buffalo.

Burgess lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, but often traveled to New York on business. One day he decided to visit Hornaday at the zoo in hopes of getting an endorsement for his bird sanctuaries program (see future post). He was swiftly dismissed by the busy administrator. When another opportunity arose, however, Burgess wrote to Hornaday, describing his massive following of readers and nature club members. (A newly-formed Burgess “Bedtime Stories” club sponsored by the Kansas City Star attracted 50,000 members in three weeks.)

Hornaday was impressed. He sent Burgess a warm, complimentary letter with a copy of one of his recent articles and an invitation to meet for lunch at the Zoological Park. The writer’s gift in touching children and parents with his nature stories translated into a resource that Hornaday prized: “Truly you have in your hands tremendous power,” he told Burgess.

That year, 1916, Hornaday and others were working hard to achieve passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty. When Thornton Burgess asked how he could help with the effort, the conservationist had a ready answer:

“I think you can score a good point by describing ‘the Gauntlet of the Guns’ that a wild duck runs when spring shooting is in vogue, all the way from the Gulf to Canada. In the days of spring shooting, I often wonder how a duck could get through alive, and how any duck could find feed and get a little rest on the journey without being killed. The picture of Mrs. Duck running the ‘Gauntlet of the Guns’ rather appeals to my imagination.” (Letter, WH to TB, Feb. 23, 1916)

This suggestion became Burgess’ blueprint. Between March and May 1916 he wrote daily newspaper columns that depicted with pathetic, heart-wrenching detail the plight of migrating birds. Hornaday wrote to Burgess, saying, “I noted with great pleasure your treatment of Mrs. Quack and her troubles; and I rejoice when I reflect upon the amount of good work your stories are accomplishing for the maintenance of the migratory bird law and the treaty” (Nature’s Ambassador, p. 152). The columns were published the next year as a collection titled The Adventures of Poor Mrs. Quack.

The Migratory Bird Treaty passed on August 16, 1916. A few months later, Hornaday wrote Burgess with jubilant thanks and described the effort to pass the treaty.

“…the result [of your work] was overwhelmingly manifested two months ago when we had a show-down in the United States Senate with the enemies of the migratory law. They put up a great fight. They spent a lot of money and a lot of effort in lobbying in Washington and in their public campaigns, but we smote them hip and thigh and gave them the worst licking any bunch of enemies of wildlife ever received. They were beaten in the Senate with their efforts to destroy the migratory bird law appropriations by a vote of 52 to 8…”

“But the crowning triumph was the Senate’s treatment of the international treaty with Canada for the protection of all the migratory birds north of Mexico, clear to the Arctic Ocean. The attitude of the Senate was of course clearly foreshadowed in the vote to sustain the migratory bird law; but even with all that that we were not prepared for the lightning stroke of progress which sent the treaty triumphantly through the Senate in four days! (NA, p. 152)

How important is the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty? “Its success in saving birds and providing a basis for future action is still impressive,” wrote environmental historian Kurkpatrick Dorsey in The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy. “It is still in force and environmentalists and governmental agencies still use the enabling legislation as the basis for action… Internationally, conservationists used the MBT as the starting point for the 1936 Migratory Bird Treaty with Mexico, the 1940 agreement with Latin American states, a 1971 world convention on wetlands protection, and other treaties with Japan and the USSR (DCD, p. 241).

An interesting facet of the Migratory Bird Treaty, Dorsey says, is that it was “a child of sentiment,” not the product of international dissention: it arose from a desire to save birds. When William Hornaday profusely thanked Thornton Burgess’ for his “valuable service to the migratory birds in the production of this [Mrs. Quack] series for your great multitude of readers,” there is no question that he was acknowledging the role a master story teller played in influencing public opinion to secure passage of a cornerstone of American conservation legislation. * * * * Author Christie Lowrance is giving a talk on naturalist, children's author, and radio pioneer Thornton Burgess at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston on May 18, 2016 at 7 p.m. (see link). Her biography Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess will be available.


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