Migratory songbirds cover thousands of miles on their epic seasonal journeys, battling fatigue, hunger, nasty weather, window glass, and predators along the way. For any frequent flier, a welcoming space to rest and recharge before the next leg of a trip is a nice find. But to a weary warbler, it’s an absolute necessity. All too often, touching down in one of the many cities that now dot songbirds’ ancient migratory routes is worse than spending a multiday layover in an airport terminal with a single vending machine.
That’s why the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), Audubon Connecticut, and several local partners formed the New Haven Harbor Watershed Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership and are working together to create “urban oases.” As birds wing it south along the Atlantic coast this fall, they’ll find a selection of bird-friendly new havens waiting for them in (yes) New Haven and other Connecticut cities. The project is a two-way street—er, flyway; the hope is that in return for the R&R, these avian visitors will also help introduce city dwellers to environmental stewardship.
As of the 2010 U.S. Census, 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas. In Connecticut the percentage is even higher, at 88 percent, or more than three million people. So, for the vast majority of the population, daily interactions with wildlife are only as good as the green spaces their cities have to offer. “People have kind of lost a connection to their natural resources,” says Richard Potvin, refuge manager at FWS’s Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge on the Connecticut coast.
The impact of the widening distance between people and wilderness is difficult to quantify, but studies suggest that the lack of natural features in our built environments can affect everything from our mental and physical health to our choices in the voting booth. At the same time, urbanization is destroying and fragmenting vital wildlife habitat. And for migratory birds it’s introducing new hazards, in the form of buildings and pollution, to an already treacherous trip.
Since the New Haven alliance launched in 2013, becoming one of 21 Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships across the country, it has transformed 42 Connecticut parks, empty lots, and yards into urban oases, 27 of which are in New Haven. “New Haven has a lot of underrepresented populations that don’t get the opportunity to go out and see wildlife,” Potvin says. “We wanted to bring wildlife to the people.”
One budding success story is a site off Cherry Ann Street, which broke ground in 2014. For years the five-acre lot had been used as an illegal dumping ground. With the help of volunteers from the surrounding neighborhood, the park is slowly transforming from an impenetrable brush pile overrun with invasive weeds into a community space that boasts native plants like hornbeams and milkweed (which is great for other migrants: monarch butterflies), along with a fishing platform and a playground.
Input from residents is key, says Chris Ozyck, the associate director of the Yale School of Forestry’s Urban Resources Initiative and the site manager at Cherry Ann Street. Local residents, after all, are the ones who will ultimately take care of the habitat. “Each site treats the community as a client,” he says. “We listen to their goals and provide guidance. . . It’s not all the time you get to build a park from fresh.”
About half of the sites in New Haven occupy schoolyards. Groups of teachers and parents from area schools can apply for a habitat, and, if selected, the partners help them design and install a space that’s tailored to the teachers’ particular vision. At the Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School, for example, the habitat features a bird blind. Meanwhile, at the Davis Street Arts and Academics Interdistrict Magnet School, there is an outdoor classroom and a vegetable garden. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to a school,” says Katherine Blake, Bird-Friendly Communities manager for Audubon Connecticut.
Yearly training workshops coach teachers on best practices for incorporating the new habitats into their curricula. Kel Youngs, the environmental lead teacher at Barnard, says one of his middle school classes learned about invasive spaces by holding a Mugwort Massacre. The students removed the offending plant from their habitat, thus creating an area better suited for pollinators. Audubon Connecticut is currently in the process of choosing three new schools to add to the program. “The goal is instilling inspiration in the next generation,” Blake says.
Suzannah Holsenbeck, a program manager for Common Ground, which helps implement the initiative in New Haven, says teachers are sometimes hesitant to use the habitats if they themselves don’t have an environmental background. But she reminds them, “You don’t have to be an expert to get your kids into this space.”
Another challenge, Ozyck says, is that several of the older urban oasis sites aren’t close enough to residential areas, making it difficult to muster enthusiasm from volunteers. To improve the site selection process, Audubon Connecticut developed an online tool that maps New Haven’s biodiversity along with relevant social parameters. The tool helped identify the program’s six newest sites as areas where potential habitat and community needs overlap, and Audubon hopes to soon expand its coverage to the entire New Haven watershed.
Sounds great, but is it working? It may be too soon to tell, but volunteers have been keeping records of bird sightings and tracking other indicators of biodiversity like invertebrate numbers. And anecdotally, participants have reported a renewed sense of pride in their neighborhoods. “Little kids used to play in the street,” Clarence James, a Cherry Ann Street resident, told the New Haven Independent. Now, they have their very own green space. “If you saw this two years ago, you wouldn’t have believed it.”
On the basis of what he’s seen so far, Potvin is convinced it’s worth it. “This is long-term banking. We’re putting in a lot of effort, but the payoff we get is incredible,” he says. “For us to provide a venue for environmental literacy and care is as important as any other aspect of conservation.”
With 37 percent of North America’s birds now facing extinction, every new advocate—and every safely completed journey—counts.