Notes from William Brewster: Ornithologists in the Courtroom

In March 1886, one deacade before the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds had organized, William Brewster wrote three letters to fellow ornithologist George Sennett, describing an early attempt to pass bird protection legislation in Massachusetts.

Brewster, who would become the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s first president and a co-founder of the American Ornithologist's Union (A.O.U.), began advocating in 1886 for a bill that would ban the hunting of birds for decorative use on women’s hats, but allow scientific collection by permit-holders. While several different interest groups were promoting bird protection, Brewster’s letters hint at the politics of people in deep disagreement over which birds should be protected and to what extent.

Cambridge, 3rd March ‘86
Geo. B. Sennett, Esq.
Dear Sir.-

Yesterday I spent an hour or more talking with Mr. Angell [George Thorndike Angell, lawyer and founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals]. I used every argument that I could and he promised to read a copy of Science Supplement which I left with him and to write me his decision about cooperating with us. He was very cordial and pleasant but he found fault with our Bulletin as being too scientific and long-winded to be useful among the masses. He thought it should be cut down, only the leading facts and arguments retained and these furnished with attractive headings, etc. He thinks “Our Dumb Animals” about the correct thing and believes that it will be read by thousands who would never look at our Bulletin. I praised it, of course, but insisted that ornithologists were the ones who could best handle bird protection etc. etc. What the final outcome of the interview will be I cannot tell. I told him (Mr. A.) that our Committee was to issue a reprint of the matter in Science Supplement in a more or less altered form and that I would have a sample copy sent him. Please attend to this and and also send me a dozen or more copies for immediate use. I should also like a few copies of Science Supplement in the original form.

To-day I attended a hearing given at the State House on the proposed new game law presented by the Mass. Fish & Game Protection Association. I read extracts from our matter in Science and strongly urged the advantages of our proposed permit clauses. The Fish & Game Ass. have a closely similar section which they (of course) consider much better. My discussion with them was amiable but I insisted on the superior merits of our production. There was an animated contest with the millinery men. A stringent bill will probably be presented by the State [?]. but I cannot say whose bill. The Fish & Game Ass. are said to have the inside track and to be lobbying freely. It is no use to attempt a compromise with them for they favor the removal [underlined] of protection from Gulls and Terns and are very independant [sic] and aggressive. Their permit clause is very good but inferior to ours.

Yours very truly,
William Brewster


Cambridge, 7th March 1886
Mr. George B. Sennett.
Dear Sir: -

The second hearing at the State House came off last Wednesday. I spent the entire day there. The room was crowded and as the Chairman was unable to keep order (he is a weak and apparently muddle-headed creature) it was a scene of mad confusion much of the time. The right of the market-men to sell game in close season was the principal subject of discussion. The protection of small birds did not come up at all and I understand that the Committee will not grant any further hearings on this subject although it has been only imperfectly presented. I shall try to get another chance to speak on it, however, for every word helps. It looks now as if the Mass. Fish & Game Protection Association would not carry their bill through and they do not deserve to. They rely on on lobbying and compromises with market dealers and pot-hunters and they have already traded away most of the strong points in their bill. The only result is that they are condemned from all sides for weakness and incompetency and they deserve it too. They received a terrible castigation from Dr. Barrows (father of our A. O. U. member) and every one not a member of their association is down, on them. Their bill has a permit clause similar to ours but which vests the power of granting permits in the Fish & Game Commissioners. One of these- Lathrop of Springfield- announced at the beginning that he considered Science a humbug and that the best was to study bird was with an opera glass!

Our proposed bill was very courteously received by the Committee in whose hands it now is. Everyone with whom I have talked except the Fish & Game Ass. is pleased with it and it has no outside opposition.

There is still a third bill presented by Dr. Barrows in behalf of the sportsmen of Mass. and signed by seventeen hundred names. It is much better in most respects than the F. & G. Ass. bill and its permit clause is nearly, if not quite identical with ours.

There will be a third hearing next Tuesday which I shall, of course, attend. Someone ought to write a series of strong articles for our Boston papers but I am utterly unable to attempt it for my health is very poor at present. There is no danger from the millinery collecting interest. The feeling is all against them. The chief danger is from the Fish & Game Ass. who are opposed to scientific collecting and seeking their own selfish ends alone.

It is all right about Mr. Foster. I find he did not say in his letter that he was authorized by the Committee. I read it very hastily and was so much driven that I had no time to consult it again. I am glad, however, that we did not join hands with the F. & G. Ass. It would have injured rather than helped us.

Yours truly,
William Brewster


Cambridge -
12th March, 1886
Geo. B. Sennet Esq.

Chairman Protection Com.

Dear Sir. -

Yesterday the State Com. on Fish & Game Laws gave the final hearing on the subject of Bird Protection. Four persons were chosen to represent the four different interests viz. Mass Fish & Game Ass., Mass. farmers, taxidermists, and and “Scientific Ornithologists” = A.O.U. and the Museums.

Each person was allowed just thirty minutes to speak. I represented the interest last-named and presented our views as clearly and forcibly as I could using written notes and memoranda on the preparation of which I spent some time and thought. I have been told since that my presentation of the case made a good impression and certainly it was very respectfully listened to.

The Mass. Fish & Game Pro. Ass. have opposed most of our bill from the first. They favor spring shooting and of about all the ducks & waders, oppose protection of Gulls, Terns, Hawks, Owls, Herons etc., and wish to have everything run by their Society. Their lawyer character-ized our bill as complicated, verbose & unpractical. Their Society has been very roughly handled, however, and I am perfectly satisfied with the present prospects in our favor.

 Yours hastily,

 William Brewster

These transcribed letters are not yet available to view on Biodiversity Heritage Library. However, you can look at page 84 of this 1886 issue of the magazine ‘Forest and Stream’ to see the bird protection bill that was proposed by the American Ornithologist’s Union. There is also the editorial by Frank Chapman (a close friend of Brewster’s) listing the birds he could identify from hundred of hats seen on the streets of New York, and a poem by Isaac McClellan, ‘Spare the Birds’. 

-Elizabeth Meyer



‘The Story of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’, Winthrop Packard, 1921. Bulletin for the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds. Web:

‘Hats off to Audubon’, Jennifer Price, 2004. Audubon Magazine. Web: