“It’s For The Birds”: Celebrating Birds And Bird Conservation Through International Migratory Bird Day
Jennifer A. Wheeler, Joy Korones, and Sue Bonfield, International Migratory Bird Day Program;
Mary Deinlein, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) is an annual day of recognition, celebrated to raise awareness and concern for the birds that share our world. Held in springtime to coincide with the arrival of migrants from lands to the south, IMBD events range from bird walks, lectures and classroom activities, to large public festivals. IMBD was begun in 1993 by the Migratory Bird Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and has been observed by over half the membership of AZA during its existence. Here, the National Zoo’s Bird Fest event is showcased in order to provide tools and suggestions to docents on how they can initiate or expand IMBD events at their own facilities.
International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) is an annual day of recognition for one of the most important and spectacular events in the life of a migratory bird its journey between winter and summer homes. In its simplest form, IMBD is a one-day celebration of migratory birds: their beauty, their amazing abilities, and the benefits they provide people. It is officially set on the second Saturday in May, to coincide with the return of spring migrants over much of North America. Actually, IMBD is celebrated throughout the year, since in its fullest form, IMBD is a movement to promote awareness and concern for a group of birds that face threats to their survival on many fronts.
IMBD was created in 1993 by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center as a way of focusing public attention on the need for action to conserve birds and their habitats. In the thirteen years of its existence, IMBD has grown from a good idea to a significant, annual occurrence. Hundreds of thousands of people participate in activities throughout the Western Hemisphere, learning about the day and birds it celebrates by joining bird walks, reading articles, observing displays or attending festivals.
Coordination of the IMBD Program is a joint responsibility of the National Fish and Wildife Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Together, coordinators are responsible for dissemination of information, development of materials, and tracking of events. They can provide more information on the materials, activities and information described here.
P.O. Box 934, Silverthorne CO 80498; 1-866-
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22203;
On the Web, visit www.BirdDay.org or www.fws.gov/birds/IMBD.
Zoo And Aquaria Involvement In IMBD
Zoos and aquaria have participated in IMBD since its creation. An article in the May 2003 COMMUNIQUÉ, member magazine of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), describes the growth of the program. “In many ways, the history of AZA participation in IMBD is also that of collective conservation efforts as a whole–and IMBD, as once promised, is now a template for how zoos can work together to further a single conservation message.”
“From that first year until 1999, about 30 AZA institutions celebrated IMBD by hosting festivals or events. Building on these auspicious beginnings, a devoted bird-loving contingent of the membership, the PACT Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) (which includes migratory birds), along with support from AZA’s Conservation Education staff, launched an effort in 2000 to make IMBD into the largest coordinated education event in AZA’s history. In addition to getting out a great message about bird conservation, AZA wanted IMBD 2000 to demonstrate just how powerful the AZA membership could be when they spoke together. They did.”
“In 2000, nearly 100 AZA institutions, at that time more than half the membership, held IMBD events. From Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to D.C.’s Smithsonian National Zoo, zoogoers gathered to listen to music, greet bird ambassadors, observe the process of migration, and learn about what they could do to aid bird conservation. Many institutions have continued to hold IMBD celebrations annually, and some institutions that did not participate in 2000’s record-breaking events have hosted events since.”
Working with IMBD coordinators, “AZA distributes materials amongst its membership to aid in celebration-planning, and keeps a registry of all the events. The big idea of an international day to focus on birds has grown into reality, in good part due to the collective efforts of AZA institutions that, through IMBD, have truly seen what they can do when they raise their voices together.”
Table 1 lists the AZA member facilities known to have celebrated IMBD.
Bird Fest At NZP: Exemplifying How To Celebrate
The celebration of IMBD at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, named Bird Fest, is special for a number of reasons. Home to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the National Zoo is the birthplace of IMBD. Also, its location in Washington D.C. places it among the headquarters of many of the organizations and agencies with a significant role in U.S. and international bird conservation. Finally, it is a large, multi-faceted event and its activities can serve as models for other facilities interested in observing IMBD.
The sections below detail components of Bird Fest, focusing on the way that each contributes to promoting awareness of bird conservation. Though not the focus of the information presented here, the organization of Bird Fest is also exemplary. Under the leadership of Mary Deinlein at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, it brings together the energies and resources of the Special Event, Education and Volunteer Services, and Membership staff of Friends of the National Zoo, as well as sponsors and partners outside the Zoo. The event is planned well in advance with the date set the previous fall. Although IMBD officially falls on the second Saturday of May, the date is not limiting, and Bird Fest is scheduled as a weekend event to fit with the other events at the National Zoo as well as the arrival of migrating birds. The event is held on a Saturday and Sunday, to increase the number of people reached and to have a built-in “rain day” in case of poor weather.
A budget and work plan for Bird Fest is established and followed, and significant planning goes into publicity. Pre-event outreach includes calendar entries and other types of announcements submitted to newsletters, newspapers, and local TV and radio stations. These efforts pay off in pre-event coverage; for example, the Washington Times has done a spread on Bird Fest in their weekend section, and local news stations have done short broadcasts/interviews from the National Zoo’s Bird House in advance of the weekend festival.
The heart of Bird Fest is the weekend-long outdoors festival open to the general public. Visitors to the National Zoo on the weekend of Bird Fest know something special is going on as soon as they enter the gates. Large banners announce the event, and signs direct people to the activities located primarily in the center of zoo grounds, but also at the Bird House. A booth along a main walkway is set up to distribute a specially-prepared Bird Fest program, detailing the weekend’s offerings, as well as free IMBD posters. Visitors are encouraged to explore the variety of free Bird Fest activities, assisted by volunteers wearing annual IMBD t-shirts.
Clearly a favorite of kids, several educational games are set up as an active, physical, and exciting way of sharing information on birds and bird migration. At Bird Fest, game participants receive a free IMBD “Conserve Migratory Birds” tattoo or sticker. Tried and true games include:
Bird Olympics. Guided by large displays and interpretive volunteers, participants learn about some of the amazing abilities of birds by comparing themselves with birds in terms of size, speed, endurance, adaptability, etc. For example, kids’ are timed running a short racecourse and their speed compared to known flight speeds; kids flap their arms to compare “wing beats” per minute of several species; and measure their arm span against accurate wing span diagrams.
[This activity is described in detail in the Flying WILD Curriculum; see Links below.]
Bird Quest: Kids learn birding skills by looking for and identifying bird cutouts placed in nearby trees and shrubs. The cutouts are laminated, life-size photos placed in locations appropriate to the bird depicted (e.g., a woodpecker perched upright against a tree trunk). Kids are provided with a checklist on a clipboard and a “field guide” to aid their search. [This activity is described in detail in the Bridges to Birding activity guide; see Links below.]
Great Migration Challenge: This game consists of a series of stations, which describe the hazards and advantages a bird might encounter while migrating. Kids pretend they are either a Baltimore Oriole or a Wood thrush migrating from Costa Rica to Washington, DC and visit these stations in turn, acting out the fortunes or misfortunes described at each (e.g., `You encounter cold winds and rain. Flap your arms 20 times while shivering, and move ahead to the next station”). [A variation of this activity is described in the Bridges to Birding activity guide; see Links below.]
Each year, IMBD highlights a particular theme. For Bird Fest, an effort is made to develop at least one interactive game that draws on the theme. Some of the activities developed by the Friends of the National Zoo Department of Education and Volunteer Services include:
- Meet a Great Blue Heron (for the IMBD theme of Conserving Colonial Birds): Hands-on objects relating to the Great Blue Heron are assembled for kids to explore and use in filling out a fact sheet. These include feathers and skull; a model egg; a model nest of sticks; imitation prey such as frogs, snakes, mice; a recording of vocalizations; and a life-size cutout of a standing heron.
- Collision Course (for the IMBD theme of Preventing Bird Collisions): Kids traverse an obstacle course in order to learn about the hazards to birds associated with human-made equipment and structures. Hazards include tall glass buildings (crafted from boxes), power lines (ropes strung across the path), cars (large dangling cutouts) and communication towers (a bright red light on a pole).
It’s important that a celebration of migratory birds include the “real thing” to the extent possible. This isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to small wild songbirds. Zoos and aquaria are often in urban or developed settings, and even when there is extensive vegetation or other habitat to attract birds, a warbler or oriole is unlikely hold still to be observed by crowds of visitors! There are, however, creative ways to help visitors connect with wild birds. At Bird Fest, volunteers with scopes and binoculars are stationed in front of the Bird House, which features a large wetland area attractive to wild birds, especially waterfowl. Mist nets have been set up in vegetated, off-exhibit areas, and the birds brought out for banding in the public view.
Though not wild, and not necessarily native to North America, having birds on exhibit is still a good way of reaching visitors, especially if information on where these species occur in the wild and when and where they migrate is made available.
Crafts can be designed to teach about birds as well as provide entertainment and souvenirs for children. Bird Fest crafts highlight locally-occurring migratory birds, and volunteers staffing the stations make a point of showing children pictures of the actual birds that the crafts masks, puppets, bracelets are intended to represent. Crafts can also have a conservation message. For example, Bird Fest 2005 adopted the IMBD theme of Preventing Bird Collisions and had kids make colorful wind socks, which when hung in front of windows, may prevent bird strikes.
Music and Live Performances
Performances add special flavor to events. Bird Fest benefits from a special relationship that Mary Deinlein developed with Evergreen Theatre, an environmentally-focused theatrical group from Alberta, Canada. For several years, Evergreen Theatre performers have traveled to Washington, D.C. to perform their dynamic song, dance and learning-filled program “Superbirds” at the festival and then for scheduled school groups during the following week (see below). Performances during the weekend festival are presented in approximately 20- minute segments on an outdoor stage, while school groups are treated to 50-minute performances in an indoor auditorium. If professional performers aren’t available, zoos and aquaria have other options. For example, in recognition of where many migratory birds spend the winter, live or recorded music from Caribbean and Latin America is broadcast during Bird Fest. Local school children have been invited to perform songs about birds and conservation.
Booths by conservation organizations
That Bird Fest has a meaningful conservation element is ensured by the exhibits set up by several local and national conservation organizations during the weekend festival. These organizations provide the public with an opportunity to learn about and get involved in a broad range of programs, all directly or indirectly related to migratory birds. Notable topics include:
Importance of shade-grown coffee to preserving migratory bird habitat (by coffee companies such as Boyd, First Colony, and of course, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, leaders of research on the topic); Creation and protection of bird habitat at home (the National Zoo’s Horticulture Department, National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat program, Wild Bird Stores); Protection and management of public lands for birds (Department of Defense Partners in Flight, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildife Service Refuges); Study and research of bird issues (Earthwatch Institute, EPA Birdcast, Maryland Ornithological Society); Bird rehabilitation (Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, Raptor Society); and Policy and activism (Rachel Carson Council, Fairfax Audubon Society)
Each year, these and other organizations are invited to share their messages, and are provided with booths and set-up assistance. Each is strongly encouraged to provide the public with an engaging activity and avoid simply handing out literature or other passive methods.
At several booths, visitors can pick up a list of other upcoming bird festivals and bird-related activities (e.g., bird walks, lectures, classes) in the mid-Atlantic area. In this way, Bird Fest organizers provide growth opportunities for the seeds of interest and awareness planted in visitors at Bird Fest.
Before or after the weekend of Bird Fest in order to take advantage of Evergreen Theatre’s presence in D.C. schools are invited to 50-minute performances of “Superbirds” at the National Zoo’s auditorium. The show revolves around Blackpoll Warbler Superbird and crime fighter extraordinaire and faithful sidekick Gord the Grouse as they try to solve the “mystery of the missing birds.” The program is suitable for all aged students, and participating teachers receive a teacher’s guide and activity packet to assist in preparing students. Teachers are also provided with IMBD materials (posters, magazines, stickers and tattoos). Typically, a total of 6 shows (2 per day) are offered, with approximately 1,000 students attending.
This year, Bird Fest collaborated with the Council for Environmental Education in offering a Flying WILD workshop for teachers. Flying WILD is a new program developed by the CEE, producers of Project Wild, designed to introduce middle school students to bird conservation through classroom activities, school bird festivals, and service learning projects.
Each year, organizers of Bird Fest attempt to integrate a bird-related presentation into the National Zoo’s lecture series. These are evening events, held at the National Zoo auditorium, scheduled on a date close to the weekend festival. These presentations provide a level of information that is appealing to those more knowledgeable or interested in birds and bird conservation. Notable speakers in the past include Pete Dunne and David Sibley, authors of popular bird and birding books. Another year, the full-length feature film “Winged Migration” was shown, with Smithsonian ornithologists on hand afterwards for questions and discussion.
Targeting Decision-makers and Media
Bird Fest has served as an opportunity to target community leaders, government officials, and the media with bird conservation messages. In addition to inviting these audiences to the weekend festival and public lecture, Bird Fest organizers have developed “exclusive” events for VIPs. When the Washington, D.C. government agreed to officially proclaim IMBD for the city, a special bird walk and brunch were arranged with the Mayor of Washington, D.C. Already an enthusiastic birder, this Mayor did not need a lesson in birding or conservation, but his participation created interest on the part of the media (the presentation of a framed IMBD Proclamation made a great photo opportunity). The event also allowed other D.C. officials and local conservation organizations to get to know each other in a casual setting.
A special event just for reporters offers the best chance for coverage in the media, and organizers are better able to orchestrate the delivery of specific messages. This past year, Bird Fest included a morning bird walk with David Sibley and key individuals associated with IMBD. The result was a detailed article in the Washington Post about bird migration through the Washington D.C. area.
Be Part Of The IMBD Celebration
Anyone and everyone can celebrate birds and their migrations no “permission” or special products are needed! However, identifying with IMBD lends excitement and meaning to an event, placing the local activity into the context of an international effort. IMBD-associated materials (e.g., poster, t-shirt, banners, stickers) are available at a low cost through an annual IMBD Products Catalog or On-Line Store. The IMBD Program also offers activity guides, press materials, and in-depth information on the conservation theme selected annually. The IMBD Program also tracks events via an Events Registry (coordinating with AZA to track zoo and aquaria events). Registration of an event has multiple benefits. It provides an event with more publicity, serves as evidence of the effectiveness of the IMBD Program and justification for its existence. It also makes it easy to find other events in the region.
Check out the On-line Store for posters, t-shirts, stickers, tattoos, banners and other supplies. The Bridges to Birding activity guide and the Flying WILD curriculum can be purchased here.
Go to Additional Resources for press materials and theme information. And be sure to register your Event!
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
Be sure to check out their Fact Sheets (the “Have Wings Will Travel” fact sheet provides good background for Avian Olympics) and their Shade Coffee section.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Friends of the National Zoo
American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) Conservation Education
Join the AZA’s IMBD Listserv an email network through which IMBD announcements and ideas are
shared. Write Eric Reinhard (firstname.lastname@example.org, Assistant Director of Conservation Education, AZA,
to join this list.)
Two publications with guidance and tips on how to organize festivals or special events:
“How to Organize a Birding or Nature Festival” by Nancy Miller, available at
For National Fishing and Boating Week but advice still applies!
Evergreen Theatre Company
Flying WILD website
Table 1: AZA Member Facilities Known to Have Celebrated IMBD
San Diego Wild Animal Park, CA
Vancouver Aquarium, BC
San Francisco Zoo, CA
Toronto Zoo, ON
Sea World-San Diego, CA
Denver Zoo, CO
Phoenix Zoo, AZ
Ocean Journey Aquarium, CO
Chaffee Zoo, CA
Pueblo Zoo, CO
Charles Paddock Zoo, CA
Beardsley Zoo, CT
Children’s Zoo/San Diego
Smithsonian’s National Zoo, DC
Brevard Zoo, FL
Coyote Point Museum, CA
Central Florida Zoo, FL
Happy Hollow Zoo, CA
Disney’s Animal Kingdom, FL
Living Desert, CA
Florida Aquarium, FL
Los Angeles Zoo, CA
Lowry Park Zoo, FL
Santa Ana Zoo, CA
The Zoo, FL
Santa Barbara Zoo, CA
Zoo Atlanta, GA
Oakland Zoo, CA
Tautphaus Zoo, ID
Sacramento Zoo, CA
Brookfield Zoo, IL
Henson Robinson Zoo, IL
Oklahoma City Zoo, OK
Lincoln Park Zoo, IL
Tulsa Zoo and Living
Shedd Aquarium, IL
Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, IN
Oregon Zoo, OR
Lee Richardson Zoo, KS
National Aviary, PA
Sedgwick County Zoo, KS
Philadelphia Zoo, PA
Sunset Zoo, KS
Roger Williams Park Zoo, RI
Topeka Zoo, KS
Brookgreen Zoo, SC
Louisville Zoo, KY
Greenville Zoo, SC
Zoo New England, MA
Riverbanks Zoo and
Baltimore Zoo, MD
Botanical Garden, SC
National Aquarium in
South Carolina Zoo, SC
Great Plains Zoo and
Salisbury Zoo, MD
Binder Park Zoo, MI
Knoxville Zoo, TN
John Ball Zoo, MI
Memphis Zoo, TN
Potter Park Zoo, MI
Tennessee Aquarium, TN
Como Zoo, MN
Warner Park Zoo, TN
Minnesota Zoo, MN
Abilene Zoo, TX
Kansas City Zoo, MO
Caldwell Zoo, TX
St. Louis Zoo, MO
Cameron Park Zoo, TX
Jackson Zoo, MS
Dallas Zoo, TX
North Carolina Zoo, NC
El Paso Zoo, TX
Folsom Children’s Zoo and
Houston Zoo, TX
Botanical Gardens, NE
Fort Worth Zoo, TX
Riverside Zoo, NE
Rainforest at Moody
Cape May County Zoo, NJ
Albuquerque Biopark, NM
San Antonio Zoo, TX
Buffalo Zoo, NY
Texas State Aquarium, TX
Central Park Wildlife
Hogel Zoo, UT
Tracy Aviary, UT
Queens Wildlife Center, NY
Mill Mountain Zoo, VA
Rosamond Gifford Zoo at
Virginia Zoo, VA
Burnet Park, NY
Seattle Aquarium, WA
Trevor Zoo, NY
Woodland Park Zoo, WA
Akron Zoo, OH
Sea World-Cleveland, OH
Cleveland MetroPark Zoo, OH
Milwaukee County Zoo, WI
The Columbus Zoo and
Racine Zoo, WI
Oglebay Good Zoo, WV
Toledo Zoo, OH