Western MA Bird Club Turns 100!

The Allen Bird Club of Springfield – 100 Years Young
By Hilltown Families Guest Writer, George C. Kingston

100 years ago, two women, Grace Johnson and Fannie Stebbins, brought together a group of bird enthusiast and formed what is now known as the Allen Bird Club.-These two photos show the evolution of the Allen Bird Club over the past decade, from outings in formal attire with simple binoculars in 1912, to modern day bird trips with high tech gear and high power lenses. (Courtesy photos)

On the afternoon of Monday, January 8, 1912, Mrs. Grace Johnson, the director of the Springfield Museum of Natural History and Miss Fannie Stebbins, the supervisor of natural science for the Springfield School Department, assembled a group of amateur bird watchers and organized the Springfield Bird Club. The purpose of the club was “to attract, conserve and study birds.” A century later, the Allen Bird Club, as it soon came to be known, is still carrying out this original purpose.

The club was named for Dr. Joel A. Allen, a Springfield native who became a Harvard professor and curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In the early days of the club, men and women boarded streetcars to go birding in  suits and ties and long skirts. Today, the attire is less formal and more practical, and the usual mode of transportation is the car, but the comradeship and willingness to help and encourage beginners is the same as always.


Originally formed to bring together people who had been independently keeping records of the comings and goings of birds, the club now has 100 years of these records, including 57 consecutive Christmas Bird Counts. The records reveal changes in both the bird populations and their habitats. Birds which are common today, such as the cardinal, tufted titmouse, Carolina wren, and red-bellied woodpecker were rare visitors in the early twentieth century, while birds that were common then, such as the evening grosbeak and the purple martin are now rare. Good birding places, such as Sixteen Acres in Springfield are now fully developed into housing, but the Quabbin Reservoir has created a huge wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the state.


Perhaps the largest undertaking by the Allen Bird Club was the establishment of the Fannie Stebbins Wildlife Refuge in Longmeadow, MA. In 1951, the club selected 175 acres in Longmeadow along the Connecticut River in the area known as “the flats” and voted to name the sanctuary after one of its founders, Fannie Adele Stebbins, who had died in 1949. The refuge is an area of swamps and forests along the Connecticut River that contains important breeding habitat for many different birds including wood ducks and bald eagles. Today, the Sanctuary, at the corner of Bark Haul and Pondside Roads in Longmeadow, contains many more acres and is one of the last remaining floodplain forests along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. It has been designated a National Natural Landmark and an Important Bird Area.


The club continues to work to preserve land for birds and other wildlife. In mid-2000’s the club received a substantial bequest from the estate of charter member Rachel Phelps. It donated a portion of that gift to the Town of Wilbraham to acquire land from the Rice Farm to help establish the Rice Nature Preserve on Wilbraham Mountain and another portion to Southwick to help it acquire and preserve land along the Connecticut border.


Believing that in order to conserve birds and their habitat, it is necessary to make the public aware of them, so the Allen Bird Club has always run both public meetings featuring distinguished and entertaining speakers and field trips on which birds can be appreciated in the wild. Today the club has 237 members and holds more than eighty field trips a year. More information can be found at the club’s website, www.massbird.org/allen. – The members of the Allen Bird club invite you to join them for its next hundred years!

George Kingston has been a member of the Allen Bird Club for over 30 years, is a past president of the club, and serves on its executive committee. He is a retired engineer and is currently chair of the East Longmeadow Conservation Commission as well as a member of that town’s planning board and community preservation committee and a Master Gardener. He has birded on all 7 continents.

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