Q&A: What Does it Take to Become a Bird City?
In 2018, American Bird Conservancy's (ABC's) Texas Coastal Program Coordinator Kristen Vale was asked to join a task force of conservation-oriented people in Galveston, Texas to help encourage bird tourism in the community. A couple of years later, she and her teammates learned about a new initiative called Bird City Texas, a regional program that certifies Bird City communities in the state. By February 2021, Galveston was a Bird City itself.
The designation not only raised Galveston's profile as a birding destination, but also helped facilitate ongoing conservation efforts to protect the community's shorebirds including Piping Plovers and Least Terns. Galveston's affirmation of its commitment to birds comes at a crucial time for the country's avian species — 3 billion birds have been lost since 1970, and shorebirds alone have declined by 33 percent in that time. Bird City programs show that the work to save birds can begin in our own backyards.
To celebrate the launch of the new Bird City Network, which helps to pool resources and insights from Bird City communities like Galveston, ABC's writer/editor Rachel Fritts sat down with Vale to ask about the benefits of being a Bird City and how to apply.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel: Where did the idea to make Galveston a Bird City come from?
Kristen: I was part of a task force in Galveston that was put together by the Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau. The task force was put together because they wanted to promote more birding across Galveston. Our neighboring city had increased their bird tourism efforts, and so [the Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau] was like, “Hey, Galveston has great birding opportunities and we should spread the word, too.”
So, ABC was invited to the table, Moody Gardens was invited, the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, and other stakeholders. So we were trying to come up with ways to promote birding across Galveston. We happened to learn about this Bird City Texas program and thought that it would be a good opportunity to increase awareness around the community and also to help with the tourism aspect of our mission.
It all started as a way to increase tourism, but then, once you actually go through the application, you have these pretty strict criteria you have to follow. The whole point of the [Bird City] program is to try to help protect the birds around your community from future loss.
R: What was your role?
K: I was part of the team that filled out the application. I helped with the application and filled out the criteria. I was one of the key people who applied and helped with the application process.
R: What was the application process like?
K: You have to meet 26 criteria, and there are nine that you have to meet no matter what. For instance, you have to create a World Migratory Bird Day celebration and you have to promote American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors program through education and outreach to residents.
The criteria are divided into three categories: community engagement, habitat enhancement and protection, and creating safer spaces for birds. We do the Christmas Bird Count every year in Galveston, so that was an easy criteria to fulfill in the community engagement category. For the “creating safer spaces for birds” category, one criteria is participating in the national Lights Out program, and we achieved this by working with the City of Galveston to create a Proclamation stating certain nights in the spring and fall as “lights out” nights.
Fortunately, we had a lot of organizations, like Artist Boat and Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, already doing a lot of work, so we were able to use a lot of pre-existing efforts to meet the criteria. Some of ABC's efforts protecting beach-nesting birds fit a criteria related to protecting nesting areas.
Still, it took a while to put all the pieces together for the application to make sure that we fit all the criteria and that we could commit to it, because you have to submit a report each year detailing how you've accomplished the work. If you're going to say that you're a Bird City, you really need to show that you put in the work.
R: Did the process of applying to be a Bird City lead to more conservation work on top of what you were already doing?
K: We really worked on going above and beyond for the category of trying to increase awareness across the community. We printed out a bird flier and put it into 20,000 residents' mailboxes through their monthly water bill. The city lets organizations promote things in the monthly water bills, and I helped create this flier that went out in the February 2021 water bill as a preparation for spring migration.
It listed things that you can do in preparation for the birds that are about to arrive in Galveston, like plant natives, turn out lights, and keep your cats indoors. All of these are criteria for the Bird City Texas application. It got a lot of good feedback.
R: How does it feel to officially be a Bird City?
K: We feel very proud — we're so proud of this designation, and we promote it left and right. Our partner the Galveston Nature Tourism Council is using this as an opportunity to create more projects. We're doing even more than what we said we would do. We want to share this to the masses, so we're creating new opportunities to help spread the word.
R: What would you tell someone who would like to make their own community a Bird City?
K: Form a committee early on and start those conversations early to see if at first glance you can meet the criteria. Having that team to help reach out to people and work on the application is really helpful.
R: What are the benefits of being a Bird City?
K: One of the main reasons why Galveston and other communities across Texas or the nation go through this process is to bring more awareness to the threats these birds are facing (including window collisions, outdoor cats, plastics, and pesticides) and enact some actions to reduce future threats. We're trying to connect people with the nature around them and help them understand why it's important. Since becoming a Bird City, Galveston has gained more awareness about birds in the community, issues they may be facing, and ways people can help.
For instance, there is now a tab on the city's website for Bird City, and we're slowly adding educational materials onto their website for residents, like a list of native plants recommended for the region. We wouldn't be able to do this if we weren't designated — it puts a stamp of approval on efforts that says this is a worthy cause and this is something to be proud of.
In Galveston, we also took this opportunity to not just maintain the criteria but to spur other ideas and projects. We are seeing this positive change and awareness throughout Galveston since becoming a Bird City Texas community. It's a great program, and we have a good team of people, so it's fun to be a part of. And we'll keep working at it because we're only just getting started — more is yet to come!
American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).
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