Earl Nottingham | TPWD
Bird City, TX
Where birds thrive, people prosper
Imagine your community in 20 years — what do you see?
You might envision some unpleasant images: increased development,
less water, fewer native species.
While that seems to be the current path for many of our cities and towns, perhaps the future could look brighter if we designed our communities for the benefit of both people and wildlife.
Bird City Texas, a program sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Audubon Texas, is trying to promote that kind of thinking and action.
“This is a road map,” says Yvette Stewart, Audubon Texas’ community outreach coordinator. “Our communities can make positive steps toward conserving natural resources. It’s just done under the guise of bird conservation because, well, people love birds!”
Texans do love birds. Roughly 2.2 million bird watchers here generate around $1.8 billion in economic impact annually.
It’s about more than money, though. Birds serve as bioindicators. When diverse native birds are present, that area is assumed to be healthy and functional; when they’re gone, the opposite is true.
A 2019 study stated that North America has lost over 3 billion birds, or 29 percent of its abundance, since 1970. The threats to birds are significant. Texas alone has 111 birds listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, meaning they’re declining or rare and need attention to maintain healthy populations.
“This is an urgent time,” Stewart says. “We must collectively start prioritizing bird conservation in our communities.”
Enter the Bird City Texas Program, designed to recognize and promote communities that increase and maintain bird habitat, minimize threats for birds, and engage residents to learn about and protect their local species.
In February 2020, four inaugural communities were certified: Bastrop, Dallas, Houston and Port Aransas. These communities exhibited a remarkable commitment to bird conservation efforts now and into the future. (Galveston, San Antonio and Surfside Beach were certified as Bird City Texas communities in 2021.)
Chase Fountain | TPWD
No one embodied dedicated passion for birds more than the late Dorothy Skarnulis of Keep Bastrop Beautiful, who helped lead the town’s Bird City coalition until her passing in July 2020.
“She was key to getting the designation,” says Mayor Connie Schroeder. “She loved the environment, her neighborhood, her community — and the community loved Dorothy.”
Skarnulis’ passion for birds lives on in a beautiful, visual way for residents and visitors. Stroll down Main Street and see painted buntings, great blue herons and goldfinches adorning shop windows, part of the Bastrop Bird Walk Initiative. A Fisherman’s Park mural (commemorating Bastrop’s certification as an inaugural Bird City community) features gigantic, geometric hummingbirds hovering around trumpet flowers, begging visitors to stop for a selfie.
“This is just the start,” says Bastrop Parks and Recreation Superintendent David Junek. “We’re hoping to create more bird murals around the city.”
Street art is just one way Bastrop is engaging its community through the pandemic. Louise Ridlon, a Texas Master Naturalist and outdoor educator, has been leading outings at the Colorado River Refuge, a beautiful 65-acre wildlife and nature park along the Colorado River.
“With coronavirus, a lot of people are out enjoying the trails and just getting close to nature,” says Ridlon, noting that park usage has tripled, including classes for home-schoolers. “It’s been a perfect outdoor lab for kids.”
Bastrop wants to be a place where community members thrive and raise happy, healthy children. For that goal to be reached, Bastrop has to be a place where nature flourishes.
“There’s been a separation between people and nature,” Ridlon says. “If this program can help people realize how important it is to our souls, our psyches and our minds, it’s worth its weight in gold.”
Earl Nottingham | TPWD
Sitting among the tall prairie grasses at Crawford Memorial Park, you can imagine yourself in a time long ago. It’s easy to forget you’re in one of the largest metroplexes in Texas.
“We don’t have that big, highly visible, natural landscape,” says Brett Johnson, Dallas Parks and Recreation urban biologist and environmental coordinator. “What we do have is the most endangered terrestrial ecosystem in North America, and that’s the Blackland Prairie.”
You could forgive most people in Dallas for not knowing the Blackland Prairie is right under their feet. Much of it has been replaced with Bermuda grass or parking lots. Fewer than 40 percent of historical grasslands remain in North America today, and populations of grassland birds have declined by more than 40 percent since 1966.
“The birds in the most trouble are those associated with our tallgrass ecosystems, and one of those is the Blackland Prairie,” Johnson says. “We’ve lost 99.9 percent of it, so anything we can do to help with prairie restoration goes a long way to conserve these grassland birds.”
That’s exactly what Johnson and the City of Dallas are doing. To date, they have restored 200 acres of prairie across 17 segments. These distinct plant communities provide habitat for many different bird species.
“We’ve had a huge uptick in raptors here: kestrels, barred owls, great horned owls, red-shouldered hawks,” says Becky Rader, longtime educator and chair of the White Rock Lake Task Force. “It was just incredible, and it’s because breakfast, lunch and dinner are here now. So, build it and they will come.”
To document these changes in biodiversity, community scientists from the city’s Adopt-a-Prairie Program participate in bioblitzes before, during and after restoration. Using the iNaturalist app, Johnson can use this data to improve management strategies.
“This program is great because it helps get our current community involved, helps them understand and care about what’s right here in our own backyard,” Johnson says. “Bird City Texas can help with that, too.”
Chase Fountain | TPWD
It’s October in Houston, and thousands of chimney swifts congregate around their towers before they begin their annual journey to Peru.
Every fall and spring, millions of migratory birds pass through Texas. At the southern tip of the Central Flyway, a bird migration route that stretches between central Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, Houston is a bird hotspot.
“It’s one of the most intense bird migrations on the continent, and we’re right in the middle of it,” says Richard Gibbons, conservation director of Houston Audubon. “The important part is that it’s primarily at night. The winds are calmer; the stars are clearer. There are fewer predators as well. Because of that, they have evolved to be very sensitive to light — celestial light.”
Gibbons says that most urban areas can be extremely disorienting, if not deadly, for migratory birds.
“When you put a giant stadium with lights shooting up into the sky, many birds are attracted to the light and become confused and disoriented,” he says. “They circle around; they’re clearly stressed out. Many of them will just wear themselves out and fall down to the ground.”
To address this issue, the National Audubon Society started the Lights Out Program, a national effort to reduce excess lighting during bird migration. This helps ensure safe passage between their nesting and wintering grounds.
“Houston Audubon has been working with Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other partners to identify what nights migration is going to be very heavy,” Gibbons says. “Then we communicate with our community and say, ‘Hey, here’s a very simple thing you can do that’s going to help these birds get on with their migrations.’”
By signing up for Houston Audubon’s Lights Out Action Alerts, community members and businesses receive messages during peak migration times and can adjust their outdoor lighting.
“There are a lot of bird deaths that can be avoided if we take some simple actions,” Gibbons says. “The beauty of it is that we’ll also save energy. We’ll also get to see the night sky. Those are all good things.”
Chase Fountain | TPWD
Standing on the boardwalk of the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, tourists from Dallas, Louisiana and Japan peer out at green-winged teals and roseate spoonbills with their binoculars and spotting scopes.
Port Aransas is no stranger to tourists — avian or human. Like Houston, Port Aransas is a key stopover point along the Central Flyway. Visiting these rest stops provides plentiful opportunities for tourists and local birders alike to witness concentrated gatherings of birds.
“Millions of dollars each year are left behind by visitors, through the money they spend in restaurants, on gear and through the hotel-motel taxes, that help restore our natural habitat,” says Brett Stawar of the Port Aransas Tourism Bureau and Chamber of Commerce.
After Hurricane Harvey ripped through Mustang Island in 2017, birding amenities throughout the area were destroyed. The community feared its tourism industry would collapse.
“We lost miles of boardwalks, trails and observation towers,” says Rae Mooney, the city’s nature preserve manager. “The boardwalk at the birding center was destroyed. A lot of the businesses depend on tourism, so it was important for them to get reopened and get people coming back.”
And luckily, come back they did.
“What's amazing is that the whooping cranes showed up the first winter after Hurricane Harvey; that was like the best thing for everybody,” Mooney says with a laugh. “A lot of birders came to Port A just to see them. They were also excited to come volunteer, get things back to normal and help restore the community they love.”
Chase Fountain | TPWD
Four years after Harvey, many amenities have been restored, while some larger ones still need funding. Mooney and the Bird City team are eager to continue rebuilding.
“We’re going to have more connectivity between our sites and will create a loop where you can walk, run or ride your bicycle between all the different birding sites in town,” she says. “I’m really excited!”
So are Texas birders.
Can my town be a bird city?
• Communities of all sizes are encouraged to apply.
• Communities should consult with professional wildlife biologists to provide technical guidance. TPWD urban biologists and wildlife biologists are a great place to start.
• Certification lasts three years, then communities can apply to recertify.
• There are two levels of certification: Basic and High Flyer. Communities have to fulfill criteria for three full years.
12 Birds Every Texan Should Know
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