NCIOS’s 60 Year History
written by: Lynda Johnson
On June 23, 1947, Don Prentis, Harold Bennett and Bob Angell met to organize the North Central Illinois Ornithological Society in Rockford, Illinois. Also known as N.C.I.O.S. or “the Bird Club”, the early history of this organization is closely tied with the history of the Nature Study Society (started in 1910), Burpee Museum (opened in 1940), the Natural Land Institute (organized in 1958), and Sand Bluff Bird Observatory (started in 1967).
These organizations are like seperate threads woven together into a beautiful tapestry of natural history – telling the story of nature in the Rockford area, and including the Rockford Park District (RPD) and Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFP). Many times since the beginning of NCIOS in the 1940s, members wrote letters to the RPD & WCFP, as well as legislators in Springfield and the U.S. Congress urging them to preserve natural areas.
Over the years the membership has included many names of people who went on to careers in ornithology (the study of birds), as well as other paths related to nature. Lee G. Johnson, who was the fourth NCIOS member, became known as the bird bander at Sand Bluff Bird Observatory as well as the second Director of Burpee Museum. His sister, Pat Johnson Snider, who was the fifth NCIOS member, was the regional editor for New Mexico and Arizona for the Audubon Field Notes magazine, and she ran the New Mexico “Birding Hotline” for many years. Milton Mahlburg, another early NCIOS member, was the Director of Burpee Museum for 45 years, and influenced many young people in their interest in birds and other nature subjects, with help from his wife Norine.
Florence Schenk was the Burser of Rockford College. Miss Schenk and Edith Van Duzer, who was a librarian who also talked to students about bird watching and about bird books, often took Dr. Evelyn Fernald’s Botany students from Rockford College on bird hikes. George Fell went on the start the Natural Land Institute, and he and his wife Barbara were instrumental in encouraging the preservation of natural areas. Bill Brooks became a professor of ornithology at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin, and the President of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology. Rupert Olson became known for his work with reptiles and amphibians and worked at a zoo in Texas. Dr. Warren Lewis became known for his work with cave animals who lived totally in the dark. Jim Weaver worked with the Peregrine Project. Bob Chapman worked with birds at the San Diego Zoo. Sue Mahlburg Kay became a world-known geologist. Dan Williams became President of the American Birding Association and is on the Land Advisory Committee for the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District. Jack Armstrong was a high school biology teacher who influenced countless students about birds and the natural world. Both Dan and Jack were instrumental in the early days of the Sinnissippi Audubon Society. Dave Seal and Jack Oar banded hawks at Cedar Grove Ornithological Station near Cedar Grove, Wisconsin. Jack Oberg became a falconer. Lynda Johnson worked in education at Burpee Museum and the Natural Land Institute. Dave Burdick and his wife, Neva, became supporters of Severson Dells. The list goes on and on!
Many of the NCIOS members were also active in the Rockford Natural History Association, the support group of Burpee Museum of Natural History. For many years, Burpee Museum had Audubon Screen Tours, first at the old Rockford College campus, then at the Rockford Woman’s Club, and finally at the auditorium at the Burpee Art Gallery. The Screen Tours were nature films, and the photographers, famous naturalists of the era, came to narrate these films. The NCIOS and the Nature Study Society often hosted suppers or coffee and deserts before and after the Screen Tours. This provided the opportunity to greet and talk to many famous visitors to Rockford, including Roger Tory Peterson.
Today, sometimes people “make fun” of birdwatchers. For sixty years the people associated with NCIOS have shown that this is nothing to make fun of! People have always found pleasure in looking at birds and learning more about them. They are beautiful and fascinating creatures! Birdwatching or birding is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country. People interested in learning more about birds are urged to visit the North Central Illinois Ornithological Society.