Migration Sensation: International Migratory Bird Weekend at Brookfield Zoo
Aggie Blesy, Nancy Schulze, Vi White, Vicky Wegner
For the last four years, Brookfield Zoo has celebrated International Migratory Bird Day on the second weekend in May. Due to the support of Dr. George Rabb, Director of Brookfield Zoo, and the efforts of Aggie Blesy, Special Events Coordinator, the celebration has continually grown each year. It is an AZA sponsored event that perhaps some of you have been involved in at your respective zoos.
It all started in 1997 when it was suggested that we do an event at the zoo recognizing International Migratory Bird Day. Deciding that it was a good idea, we needed a plan.
Whenever there is a new project at Brookfield Zoo we take the team approach to work on it. A planning team was formed starting with docents that are dedicated bird watchers. Ideas were discussed and it was time to bring in staff. The bird department staff was very excited about participating in the event.
We decided to do a weekend rather than a one-day event. We wanted to create awareness of migratory birds passing through the zoo and inspire people to learn more about conservation. At the same time we could benefit the zoo by increasing attendance during a quieter season of the year and generating revenue at restaurant and merchandise locations.
We researched by checking web sites and tried to find any information we could about International Migratory Bird Day. We contacted Partners in Flight, the American Bird Conservancy, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife for print materials.
Our targeted audiences were primarily bird clubs/organizations, nature centers, conservation groups, scout groups, libraries, and park districts. The secondary audience was the Brookfield Zoo membership and the general public visitor.
How could we reach our audience? Our public relations department called local TV stations to see if they would promote the event, and channel 5 agreed to do a live remote one morning of the IMBD weekend. Information about our activities was posted on our web site, e-mails were sent to those on our list, and a regular mailing was sent to zoo members. There were radio promotions as well. Posters were placed in local businesses, libraries, and park offices. We contacted Chicago Wilderness and Chicago Environmental Network and invited them to be involved, and they provided materials.
Our own design department created the logo of a migrating bird. This logo was used on all signage in the park, in all print materials sent from the zoo, and anyone working the event wore a yellow sash with the logo attached.
We presented the event in two settings. First, the information station, which is a central location or “hub”, is where all activities and displays were presented to the public and where printed information was given out. Four birding stations were set up throughout the park to report actual sightings of birds.
We needed to man our hub and the birding stations. A “help wanted” went out to Brookfield Zoo’s docents, volunteers, and staff. There is no need to be a bird expert as there are many things anyone can do. Before the International Migratory Bird Weekend, we recruited as many volunteers to help out as possible. Special events volunteers can help set up and take down the tents and displays. Guest guides can help direct visitors to the information center. Docents can engage the visitors in fun migratory bird activities and direct them to the birding stations to meet the experienced birders, who can help them spot migrating birds. For the birding stations we sought people who are experienced birders. In addition to some docents and staff members, we invited the members of a local bird club to come and share their expertise. Their response was very enthusiastic. We have learned in the past that with more bird spotters available you can draw in more people and see more birds.
This year, as a new feature, we offered a Breakfast with the Birds in one of our restaurants close to where the International Migratory Bird Day activities were taking place. This was to encourage people to come out early and enjoy the rest of the day birding.
Each year we see the event grow. Being a conservation institution, it is imperative that we create awareness about birds and the long journeys they make twice a year.
The Migratory Bird Information Station is the main center of activity where all the migratory bird information is disseminated to the public. One of the functions of the information station is to encourage individuals who have not been initiated to birdwatching to learn about the opportunities and excitement that can accompany such a hobby.
Some of the items that we use to attract visitors are various displays, games, and interactive activities. We have a feather exhibit showing how they vary in color, shape, texture, and function. We have bird nests that point out the many variations in the way birds build their homes. Inside these nests, we show what the bird’s eggs look like. We have different types of birdhouses and feeders. These range from hummingbird feeders to suet blocks for woodpeckers. We show visitors how a variety of food will attract certain types of birds. If you put out the right kind of feeder filled with the proper food, many of the migratory birds will show up in your backyard year after year. These items are important to sustain the birds’ energy needs on their long migratory journey. We engage the visitors in a quick quiz to get them involved in asking questions while they are viewing these displays. We have a shade grown coffee activity that shows the visitor how it benefits both humans and birds.
There are free samples of this coffee available for the visitor to “taste test”. For our very young birdwatchers, we have pictures to color of the most common area birds. There are also washable tattoos of the Baltimore Oriole and the Peregrine Falcon. We use a card game, “Migration: A Journey Full of Risks”, to help visitors understand why birds migrate, the routes they take, the risks they endure, and how we can make their journey more successful.
We have Brookfield Zoo bird lists available for visitors to use when they go in search of birds. This makes them aware of how many types of birds there are to see in our area. During the birdwatching session, birders at the stations may call in their sightings on radios to the information station. We keep the daily list current by posting the reports as they come in. It gives people a good idea of how many different species are either living on the grounds or passing through on that day. The length of the list depends on many factors such as the number of skilled watchers, the position of weather fronts, and the temperature.
We have many other items at the tables at the information center that assist with giving the new and/or avid birder a unique and enjoyable experience. These items include use of binoculars, maps of typical migration routes, bird posters, and brochures. Some of the handouts include:
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – “Familiar Migratory Songbirds”
- Illinois Audubon Society Stamp Collecting Project
- Birder’s Map of Brookfield Zoo – For locating birding stations
- Brookfield Zoo Wild Bird List
- “Keeping Cats Indoors Isn’t Just For the Birds”
- Shade Grown Coffee brochures
- Project FeederWatch brochures.
To help our newer birdwatchers become knowledgeable, the Bookstore provided a book cart loaded with various books and tapes for sale. As we answer their questions, they may decide that they would like to see what a particular bird looks like or obtain further information about its habitat or behavior. Providing these books encourages novices to increase their awareness about migratory birds. One of the important functions of the information center is to introduce birdwatching to the novice.
At the Indian Lake overlook we set up a “visitor trap”. Some visitors may have by-passed the main information station and are not aware of our weekend theme. Our station at the Indian Lake overlook gives them a bird’s eye view of the “Migration Sensation.”
A migration poster is displayed here. It shows the birds’ migration routes and presents a few migration facts. There also are pictures of some of the migratory birds which people could possibly expect to see at that location.
This is the tricky part of the whole event. Those of you who have ever interpreted exhibits know that animals do not appear on demand or by invitation. For example, sometimes what people see are the keepers servicing an exhibit, not the polar bears they were hoping to see. Exhibit interpretation has an element of luck.
Showcasing migrating birds is a gamble too. Their arrival is dependent on the weather and can be quite variable. Zoo attendance on the designated weekend is also weather dependent. The goal is to get as many birds and people together as possible. Because we provide so many different opportunities, it has been our experience that the visitors love the event no matter what the conditions.
Indian Lake is located in an informal section at the western end of the grounds. This area functions as a natural exhibit with several species of captive birds and as many wild birds and animals as choose to drop in. Captive birds have had their wings pinioned so they cannot fly away. A pair of Trumpeter Swans is included in this flock. Wild Trumpeter Swans are migratory birds by nature. Their numbers in the wild have been reduced to near extinction. Our pair is being managed in a breeding program for the Species Survival Plan, and cygnets hatched here eventually may be released into the wild when they mature.
With a telescope set up and focused on the swans, we may use them as a way to approach people. Hardly anyone can resist an invitation to look through the scope. When they can see the individual feathers and other details of the swans, a “WOW” is the standard reaction. Interpretation is a cinch. Now they’re eager and ready to see birds on their own. Spotters help them locate and identify birds that are nearby in trees and bushes. For some people this is a new and exciting experience. The names of the birds seen in the park are radioed to the information station.
One special spotting station is located on a narrow strip of land between Indian Lake and Dragonfly Marsh. Four years ago the marsh did not exist. It was a site where soil from previous building construction had been dumped. Originally it was a wetland. A plan to restore the natural habitat was adopted and carried out with the cooperation of several government and environmental agencies. Now water from Indian Lake is pumped to a deep reservoir behind the marsh. That water slowly seeps through the new marsh, is filtered by the soil and plants, and trickles back into Indian Lake.
Other measures were taken to upgrade Indian Lake. An underwater aeration system was installed to add oxygen to the water. The shoreline was opened up by clearing underbrush and superfluous trees. This allows the wind to ripple the lake surface, naturally oxygenating it. The water quality has improved dramatically. The Dragonfly Marsh/ Indian Lake restoration project is a prototype for private property owners who may wish to reclaim degraded habitat. It truly is a conservation success story.
Restoration of natural areas is very important for migrating birds. It provided them with the R & F – rest and food- they require for their long journey in the spring and return in the fall.