The Virginia Society of Ornithology exists to encourage the systematic study of birds in Virginia, to stimulate interest in birds, and to assist the conservation of wildlife and other natural resources. All persons interested in those objectives are welcome as members. Present membership includes every level of interest, from professional scientific ornithologists to enthusiastic amateurs. The VSO is a 501(c)3 organization

Founding of the Virginia Society of Ornithology

by David W. Johnston

Pre-VSO bird students and their activities were loosely scattered over the state. Professional ornithologists from Washington carried out some field work, collecting, and Christmas censuses. Beginning in 1901 the National Association of Audubon Societies began to place wardens on the Barrier Islands to protect breeding seabirds.. The Audubon Society appointed Miss Katherine Stuart of Alexandria as a field agent. She traveled widely over the state organizing Audubon Bird Clubs and Junior Bird Clubs from 1910-1925. By 1922 there were 41 junior clubs with 1,830 members, but the state Audubon Society became essentially non-existent. Beginning in 1910 the University of Virginia offered summer bird courses; instructors included J. Bowie Ferneyhough, Ludlow Griscom, Herbert Friedmann, and Miss Stuart. In 1922, William Palmer of the National Museum in Washington willed 500 bird specimens to the University of Virginia for its bird classes. Still, by the late 1920s the number of bird students actively working in the state was small.

For several years Miss Stuart and Professor Ruskin Freer of Lynchburg College had an interest in forming a state organization of ornithologists. In 1929 she and Mrs. Joseph Dise of Amherst sent a list of prospective members to Dr. Freer who then sent a form letter in October 1929 to 60-70 bird students asking their opinion on forming a state organization. Most of the 35 replies heartily endorsed the idea, so Dr. Freer in conjunction with Dr. J. J. Murray and M. G. Lewis called a meeting at Lynchburg College on 7 December. The 18 attendees decided to organize The Virginia Society of Ornithologists with local affiliated organizations and elected officers—President, Ruskin S. Freer; Vice-president, Charles O. Handley, Sr. of the State Game Commission; Secretary-treasurer, Miss. Lena W. Henderson of Randolph-Macon Woman's College; Editor of the Bulletin, Dr. J. J. Murray of Lexington. The name of the organization was changed to the Virginia Society of Ornithology.

The name of the Bulletin, The Raven, was suggested by Mr. Handley as a “bird of wisdom,” “a bird of the crags and remote places and carries with it a breath of the wilderness,” and to serve “as a memorial to a bird which in our section is fast being driven out of existence by the advance of civilization” For their significant contributions to Virginia ornithology, Dr. William C. Rives of Washington, D.C. and Dr. Ellison A Smyth, Jr. of Salem were named Honorary Life Members. Dr. Rives had published in 1890 “A Catalogue of the birds of the Virginias,” and Dr. Smyth had spent many years documenting the bird life of Montgomery County.

Two principal purposes of the new organization were identified. First, “to draw together the bird students of the state into a group where they may know and help one another.” Second, “to gather and assemble data on the birds of Virginia.” As a corollary to the second purpose, the organization would encourage the keeping of careful individual records, to publish them in The Raven, and thereby to lay the foundation for a revised catalogue of the birds of Virginia. As further stated, “we are ready to encourage in any way the protecting of our birds and all wild life, but the society is primarily for the study of birds in the field.”

The president appointed a committee to draw up a constitution. Members included M. G. Lewis from Lexington, Ralph M. Brown from Blacksburg, and Miss Florence Hague from Sweet Briar College. The first issue of The Raven appeared in January 1930 (mimeographed and to be issued monthly), and was subsidized in part by a grant of $50.00 from the Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries. The first illustration of a Raven came from Thorburn's “British Birds” as drawn by the author. Annual dues were set at $1.50, and, because the first issue was sent moreorless gratis to a fairly large number of bird students, it was decided to extend charter membership to anyone who paid dues by April 1, 1930. A list of the 40 charter members was subsequently published in The Raven Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 29-30, 1944.

The first meeting of the society was held on 13-14 February 1931 in Richmond when the principal papers were on bird photography by Herbert K. Job and banding Chimney Swifts by Charles O. Handley, Sr. The society's Constitution was presented by the special committee and approved by the members present. New classes of membership were also approved—Honorary, Sustaining, Active, and Associate.

Thus, after one year the VSO was off to a good start. The membership was growing. The Raven was publishing interesting articles on bird distribution, migration, and Christmas censuses. And bird students throughout the state were taking a greater interest in obtaining accurate records and communicating with others in Virginia.

Activities undertaken by the Society include the following:

  • An annual meeting (usually in the spring) held in a different part of the state each year, featuring talks on ornithological subjects and field trips to nearby areas.
  • Other forays or field trips lasting a day or more and scheduled throughout the year so as to include all seasons and to cover the major physiographic regions of the state.
  • A journal, The Raven, published twice yearly, containing articles about Virginia ornithology, as well as news of the activities of the Society and its chapters.
  • A newsletter, published quarterly, containing current news items of interest to members and information about upcoming events and pertinent conservation issues.
  • Virginia Birds, a new quarterly publication that documents bird sightings throughout the state.
  • Study projects (nesting studies, winter bird population surveys, etc.) aimed at making genuine contributions to ornithological knowledge.

In addition, local chapters of the Society, located in some of the larger cities and towns of Virginia, conduct their own programs of meetings, field trips, and other projects.