Berners Kelly – An Early Great Falls Conservationist

Berners B. Kelly (1860-1920) – Early Great Falls Conservationist
Berners was born December 8, 1860 in England and traveled to South Africa and Australia before arriving in Great Falls in 1887.  He married Ellenor Devlin and joined his brother Ted’s coal mining and building supplies company – ‘Tod and Kelly’.  Charlie Russell and Berners were friends and members of the local Elks lodge.  His illustrated letters to the Kelly brothers contain his humor and appreciation for friendship.  My husband’s cousin Harold Lockhart recently gave one (dated February 22, 1920)[1] to the C M Russell Museum.  The subtitle to Berners’s obituary (April 17-18, 1920)[2] in the Great Falls Tribune read “President of Local Park Board and Pioneer Resident of City Succumbs; Always an Ardent Lover of Birds, Trees and Flowers”.
Berners B. Kelly first came to my attention about seven years ago via a small booklet he authored entitled “Bird Notes”[3] which I found in Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon Christmas Bird Count box.  The booklet contains descriptions of the habits of various bird species which can yet be seen in Great Falls.  Topics addressed are winter bird residents, bird nests, migration, songbirds and predators.  His style was descriptive and informative.  Of the Western Meadowlark, “In the dewy coolness of an April morning from fence post, boulder, or bare treetop one hears again and again the eight notes of the lark’s repertoire thrilling the air with a marvelous freshness … When the sun is at its height he will again utter his tanks, or his prayer, whichever it may be, and, if one may be fanciful in one’s ideas, having said grace will fall to at the table spread for him…”  (Bird Notes, 13)
In the same box was a newspaper article he wrote entitled “The Coming of the Birds and What They Mean to the Farmer and the Gardener”[4].  He extolled the birds’ financial benefits to all of us as they consume myriads of harmful insects.  “If there were no hawks and owls our fields and prairies would swarm with gophers and mice,…If there were no robins the cutworms and kindred pests would make gardening well nigh a hopeless task…The orioles delights in potato bugs as a change in his diet of lighter insects,…And what shall I say of our debt to the eaters of flies and other winged pests?…The king-bird, the phoebe, the other three members of the fly-catcher family which spend the summers with us, and the swallow and the martin, and the night-hawk?…And were it not for our trees and shrubbery, we should not have many of the birds that prey solely on insect life, which is worth remembering.”  From the biological section of the department of agriculture (of the USA), Berners listed figures of financial loss caused in our country by various insects eating commercial crops.  Bottom line:  “welcome and protect the birds, except for the “English (House) Sparrow which is an unmitigated and pestiferous nuisance without one redeeming characteristic…”
Besides encouraging people to appreciate and protect birds, he conducted Great Falls’ first and second Christmas Bird Counts by himself in 1911 and 1918.  1900 was the first Christmas Bird Count held in the United States.  It was a reaction to the late nineteenth century Christmas day activity called “side hunt”:  shooting as m any birds as possible.  Concerned about declining bird populations, ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition of counting as many species and individual birds as possible and sending the information to a central location.  Berners’ accounts are recorded in Bird-Lore Magazine, the official Christmas Bird Count publication at the time (14:42, 1912 and 21:46, 1919)[5].  His first count on December 25, 1911:  “12 PM to 2 PM.  Fair; snow in air; wind northwest, light; two degrees above zero.”  He saw six species:  27 Common Goldeneyes, 1 Swainsons Hawk, 3 Downy Woodpeckers, 4 magpies, 150 Ruby-crowned Kinglets and 5 Northern Shrikes.  His second count on December 25, 1918:  “1 to 3 PM.  Clear and bright sun; skiff of snow; no wind; temp 32 F.  Bufflehead Duck, 52; Downy Woodpecker, 2; Sparrow Hawk (now American Kestrel), 1; Hawk (unidentified), 1; magpie, 3; Siskin, 30; Tree Sparrow, 12; Northern Shrike, 2; Chickadee, 3;  Total 8 species, 108 individuals”.
Lee M. Ford also did a count on Christmas day 1918 on his ranch 18 miles west of Great Falls.  From his account in the above Bird-Lore Magazine[6]:  “2 to 5 PM.  Clear, light snow on ground; mild west wind; temp 33F.  Four miles of river bottom.  Pin-tail Grouse, 8; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Downy Woodpecker, 1; flicker, 3; Horned Lark, 7; Magpie, 27; Pine Siskin, 33; Lapland Longspur, 5; Redpoll (estimate) 150; Tree Sparrow, 29; Northern Shrike, 2; Bohemian Waxwing, 49; Chickadee, 23.  Total:  13 species, 340 individuals.  The Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Tree Sparrows, and Chickadees were intermingled in a sunflower field, and I am satisfied there were a great many more of each variety than I was able to count.  The Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs were also found together.  The Waxwings were feeding on the berries of wild rose bushes.”
(Thirty-six years later, the third Great Falls Christmas Bird Count was held in 1954 followed by counts in 1955-1957, 1959-1960.  The next count occurred in 1981.  Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon chapter has held the count annually since then.)
As a long-time city park board member and later president, he was a leader in planning Highland cemetery.  That cemetery is a fine birding area today.  Berners picked a wonderful final resting place for himself.  Thank-you, Berners B. Kelly, for your energetic efforts on behalf of birds, parks and all citizens of Great Falls.
Nora Flaherty Gray, February 22, 2016

[1] Brian W. Dippie,The 100 Best Illustrated Letters of Charles M. Russell (Fort Worth:  Amon Carter Museum), 2008, 154-157 “Frind Berners”  February 22, 1920

[2] “Berners B. Kelly Passes Away After Illness of Two Years,”  Great Falls Tribune, April 17, 1920,8.
“Kelly Funeral to be Monday”, Great Falls Tribune, April 18, 1920

[3] Berners B. Kelly, Bird Notes, 13 (28-page booklet:  1897?)  He mentions being in Great Falls for ten (10) years (p4).  He arrived in the city in 1887 according to his obituary.

[4] Berners B. Kelly, “The Coming of the Birds and What They Mean to the Farmer and the Gardener.”  (date and newspaper unknown)

[5] Bird-Lore Magazine, 14:42, 1912; 21:46, 1919 (Bird Lore Magazine was the immediate predecessor of Audubon Magazine.  It was first published in 1899 by Frank Chapman as the “Official Organ of the Audubon Societies” and “an illustrated bi-monthly magazine devoted to the study and protection f birds.”  The National Association of Audubon Societies purchased Bird-Lore from Chapman in 1935.  After the National Association of Audubon Societies became the National Audubon Society in 1940, Bird-Lore became Audubon Magazine in 1941.  The magazines name was changed to Audubon in 1966.

[6] Bird-Lore magazine, 21:46, 1919

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