Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

photo of Bird City Wisconsin flag © Birdcitywisconsin.org

Being a Bird City means making the community healthier for birds.
© Birdcitywisconsin.org

June 2012

Building Bird Cities

A feather in a community's cap.

Carl Schwartz

Imagine waking up one morning, looking out your back window and spotting a brilliantly-colored magnolia warbler visiting the native trees and shrubs that you planted.

Here’s a tiny bird, a true jewel of spring, bound for the boreal forest after wintering in Guatemala and, for one day, it’s dependent on your actions to help it get to its breeding ground and produce young.

At the same time, in communities all over Wisconsin, local governments and private citizens are teaming up to increase native plantings in parks and backyards, building nest boxes and chimney swift towers, preventing window collisions and educating cat owners about the need to keep their pets indoors.

That’s the powerful story behind Bird City Wisconsin.

Sign of the times

This summer, the program’s distinctive street signs will help welcome residents and visitors alike to 50 communities statewide. But even if you have seen a sign, you may still have wondered, what the heck is a “Bird City?”

When Bird City Wisconsin (BCW) announced in late March that it was awarding recognition to 11 additional communities, its collaborative program for urban bird conservation had reached the 50 mark. That’s the number of cities, villages, towns and counties statewide it has honored for working with their residents to, as its website proclaims, “make our communities healthy for birds...and people.”

Simultaneously, the 2-year-old program announced that all 15 of its inaugural communities, honored in December 2010, had successfully renewed their recognition for 2012, with five upgrading to “High Flyer” status by undertaking more aggressive bird conservation efforts.

One of those 15 was Green Bay, the largest Bird City in the state. Mayor Jim Schmitt has been a big backer of the program, appearing at the city’s Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary to accept the city’s initial recognition in a colorful ceremony joined by two alders, regional DNR leaders, a peregrine falcon and several mallards.

Photo of children playing 'dead.' © Birdcitywisconsin.org
Kids play dead to mimic carrion that might attract some birds that work as nature's recyclers.
© Birdcitywisconsin.org

“Being a Bird City has generated more enthusiasm and community involvement given our focus and respect for bird habitat,” Schmitt said in March after Green Bay renewed and was recognized as a High Flyer. “Green Bay is known as ‘Titletown USA’ and we’re proud to add Bird City as one of our distinguished titles.”

Bird City – modeled after the widely successful Tree City USA program of community recognition – developed 22 criteria across five categories, including habitat creation and protection, community forest management, limiting hazards to birds, public education, and recognizing International Migratory Bird Day. Its aim was to see local governments expand their conservation efforts while educating residents to also do more.

In return, BCW offers highly visible recognition to those cities, villages, counties and towns that meet certain criteria: two street signs, a flag, a plaque and its own page on the BCW website. Its emblem was designed by renowned Wisconsin landscape painter Tom Uttech and his wife, designer Mary Uttech.

“Recognition as a Bird City will be a feather in the cap of any Wisconsin community,” said Andrew Struck, president of the Milwaukee Audubon Society, chair of the BCW steering committee, and director of the Ozaukee County Planning and Parks Department.

“This unique program is not only recognizing existing efforts but is building partnerships among local governments, community groups and conservation groups that will spur other cities, counties, towns and villages to adopt the best practices we will spotlight,” added Struck.

BCW intends to keep growing, and is currently working with more than three dozen other communities on applications, which are accepted three times each year on March 1, July 1 and November 1. Application and renewal fees of $100 partially cover project costs.

Communities that successfully renew – BCW calls that “Sustained Flight” – receive decals to update their highway signs and new inserts for their plaques, as well as an updated Web page. Special decals are issued for signs in “High Flyer” communities.


BCW’s overall plan is a simple one: Encourage all communities in Wisconsin to implement sound bird conservation practices by offering highly visible recognition to those that succeed in enhancing the environment for birds and educating the public about the interactions of birds and people and about the contributions birds make to a healthy community.

The Milwaukee Audubon Society partnered with seven other Wisconsin conservation organizations in September 2009 to launch BCW with a small planning grant from TogetherGreen, an alliance between the National Audubon Society and Toyota. TogetherGreen increased its support in 2010 and 2011. Additional financing has come from Milwaukee Audubon ($5,000) and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, which donated $10,000 from its Bird Protection Fund in 2012 and hopes to double that in 2013 and 2014.

“Birds are a vital component of a healthy ecosystem in our local communities and they provide environmental, as well as economic benefits,” said Flo Miller, TogetherGreen co-director at Audubon. “As an early supporter of the Bird City Wisconsin program, Audubon and Toyota applaud the Wisconsin elected officials, citizens and volunteers who have made it possible for 50 communities across the state of Wisconsin to reach Bird City designation. The efforts of Wisconsin conservation groups are proving that this is a model program worthy of replication at the national scale.”


One of the signature elements of the Bird City program is its requirement that each community’s elected leaders adopt a resolution recognizing International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) and establish an event to celebrate it.

That means Wisconsin had at least 50 such celebrations this year, and that has drawn praise from Environment for the Americas, which coordinates IMBD events across two continents. It said recently: “One of the requirements to become a Bird City is hosting an IMBD event. In just two years, the state has become a leader in promoting bird conservation actions and community education.”

Why be a Bird City?

The rationale for creating “Bird City Wisconsin” has multiple layers:

Birds need our help...

...now more than ever to help meet the growing threat of habitat loss magnified by global climate change. But millions of birds are killed due to other human-related causes that are more easily combated. Consider these facts:

  • Scientists estimate that 300 million to one billion birds die each year from collisions with buildings.
  • Up to 50 million die from encounters with communication towers and wind turbines.
  • At least 11 million die from car strikes.
  • One million birds may die EACH DAY from attacks by cats left outdoors.

Birds are valuable indicators of environmental health, locally and globally. Remember the role of the canary in a coal mine?

Birds capture our imagination with their flight and song, their annual migrations, their antics at our bird feeders and their beauty. Bird watching is second only to gardening as the most rapidly growing leisure interest. In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources estimates that wildlife watchers spend $1.3 billion a year on their hobby. According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife- Associated Recreation, some two million residents and nonresidents over the age of 16 actively participate in various aspects of wildlife watching in Wisconsin.

Birds are unheralded assistants to backyard gardeners, flower fanciers, private and municipal landscapers, farmers and foresters. Without birds, communities would have to spend far more money keeping natural systems in balance. Insecteating birds reduce the need for chemical pest control. Birds also are voracious eaters of weed seeds and rodents.

Bird populations are enhanced by practices such as creating, protecting, and managing green space, landscaping with native plants in backyards and parks, adopting architecture and lighting systems that reduce collisions, and keeping cats indoors.

Birds can be harmed by some kinds of economic development and technological innovation, and by accelerating urbanization that reduces native vegetation. A recent Texas study found that higher home values were correlated with the presence of less common bird species, which themselves were indicators of higher quality native habitat.

Populations of some species of both urban birds and birds of the countryside are declining due to shrinking habitats and lack of public attention to this decline. BCW is shining a spotlight on species that are declining such as the chimney swift, purple martin and common nighthawk.

Noel Cutright, founder of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, notes that BCW “provides an excellent vehicle for communities to harness the human connection with birds – reaching beyond bird watchers to new and essential audiences.”

“Over and over again, it has been demonstrated that a place that is a haven for birds and is doing good things to benefit them is a better place in which to live and work,” Cutright added.

Learning from partners

When an alliance of bird conservation groups put together the BCW plan, their hope was to do for urban bird conservation what the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program has done to enhance urban forestry. Wisconsin boasts 178 Tree Cities, ranking third nationally, in a program that began in 1976. In Wisconsin, the program is administered by the DNR’s Urban Forestry coordinator Dick Rideout and his staff, who have strongly supported BCW’s outreach efforts. Two-thirds of the state’s Bird City communities also are Tree Cities.

Another key BCW connection with the Department of Natural Resources is through the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI), whose coordinator, Andy Paulios, works in the DNR’s Bureau of Wildlife Management. WBCI is a voluntary partnership of over 170 different government agencies, businesses, nongovernmental conservation and environmental organizations, and bird clubs from around the state. It is widely recognized as the most active state bird conservation initiative in the United States.

The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin’s (NRFW) support for BCW has taken on increased importance since Toyota’s grant rules preclude another year of support.

Wisconsin's 50 Bird Cities

"Sustained Flight" – 2nd year renewals (in bold), "High Flyer" – renewed with more aggressive conservation steps (IN BOLD CAPS)

Bailey's Harbor, Bayfield, Bayside, Beaver Dam, Brookfield, Brown County, Chenequa, Elm Grove, Ephraim, Evansville, Fond du Lac, Fontana, Fox Point, Grantsburg, GREEN BAY, Hales Corners, Horicon, Kenosha, La Crosse, Lake Geneva, Manitowish Waters, Manitowoc, Marquette County, Mayville, McFarland, Mequon, Middleton, MUSKEGO, New London, Newburg, Oconomowoc, Oconto, OSHKOSH, OZAUKEE COUNTY, Plover, Plymouth, Presque Isle, Racine, River Falls, Sauk Prairie (Prairie du Sac and Sauk City), Sherwood, Shorewood Hills, STEVENS POINT, Taylor County, Town of Grafton, Trempealeau, Wausau, West Bend, Whitefish Bay, Williams Bay

NRFW grants coordinator Barb Barzen, a member of BCW’s Steering Committee, notes: “We raise money for conservation programs that have widespread meaningful impact. Bird City Wisconsin delivers conservation programming and networking to all sizes of communities statewide. Most people pay attention to birds to some degree, so Bird City Wisconsin’s message – birds do a lot for us and they face many threats, so let’s make things better for them in our own backyard -– resonates with a large, statewide audience at the local level. And it translates directly into action on the ground. From a funder’s point of view, you can’t get any more widespread or effective than that.”

In addition to WBCI, the NRFW and Milwaukee Audubon, the Bird City Steering Committee includes representatives of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the Madison Audubon Society, Wisconsin Audubon Council, Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, Riveredge Bird Club, Aldo Leopold Audubon Society, Ozaukee County and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

BCW is using its website, Bird City Wisconsin, to guide foresters, parks directors, city planners, Audubon chapters, bird clubs, natural landscape groups and others through the application process, while offering how-to details on new conservation strategies. It also documents how communities earn recognition.

Steering committee members are particularly enthused at some of the partnerships that have developed in the application process:

  • Trempealeau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the adjacent Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Ephraim and the Department of Natural Resources at adjacent Peninsula State Park.
  • Grantsburg and the Crex Meadows Wildlife Education and Visitors Center.

They also are impressed with the increased conservation commitment seen during the recently completed renewal process, over and above those five communities that made the jump to High Flyer:

  • Mequon, for example, achieved seven additional Sustained Flight criteria, jumping from eight to 15 met.
  • Teamwork among the New London Parks and Recreation Department, the Mosquito Hill Nature Center and the New London Public Museum yielded a week-long IMBD celebration, dubbed Feather Fest 2012. Similar efforts in Oshkosh created a second annual Bird Fest, with bird banding, yard habitat tours, live birds of prey, children’s activities and a downtown gallery walk.
  • Green Bay has its own BCW committee that demonstrates particular strength in habitat creation and protection. Efforts to restore prairies and wetlands, to control invasive species and to promote natural lawns, have increased in Bird City communities and help maintain native bird populations.

To extend its outreach, BCW has relied on a heavy agenda of more than 100 public appearances, with talks to Audubon chapters, bird clubs and natural landscape groups, as well as appearances at statewide meetings of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, The Wildlife Society, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, The Prairie Enthusiasts and the Wisconsin Lakes Association. And it often presents its recognition awards at village board and city council meetings, using the opportunity to reach a community audience in person and on cable television with a message that commends the community for its conservation efforts and reminds them that Bird City’s recognition presents the kind of image that most citizens want to have for the place they live, work or vacation.

It’s no accident then that the Department of Tourism’s regional specialists have taken an interest in the program, distributing Bird City brochures. And among the communities that see the advantage in a “bird friendly” image are Manitowish Waters and Presque Isle in the Northwoods, Ephraim and Bailey’s Harbor in Door County, along with the three neighbors of Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana.

“If we are going to be successful in conserving Wisconsin’s bounty of bird species, we need to unleash the energy found within the cities of our state,” says Tom Hauge, DNR’s wildlife management director. “It will take people who care enough to commit their talents to make sure future generations can enjoy the splendor of birds. We congratulate Bird City Wisconsin on your success and we pledge our continued support as we go forward.”

Carl Schwartz is the coordinator of Bird City Wisconsin and active in many other birding organizations.

Getting your community to join the flock

So how can you play a role in making your community a Bird City?

Photo of male cardinal © Herbert Lange
© Herbert Lange

Bird City Wisconsin celebrates the power of partnerships and seeks to foster collaboration between a range of birding and natural landscaping organizations and municipalities of all sizes. Audubon chapters, bird clubs and garden clubs already have played a huge role in helping many obtain Bird City recognition.

Often all it takes to get a Bird City application launched is one person intrigued by the idea and willing to contact the community forester, parks director, city planner, alder, village trustee, manager or mayor. The Bird City website makes the rest of it pretty easy, laying out the process, the conservation criteria and offering a page on each already-recognized community detailing how they met the recognition criteria.

So check out Bird City Wisconsin. Take advantage of the criteria your community already meets – knowing that your organization may be the reason for some of them – and start building your application around those.

Contact the BCW coordinator at Carl Schwartz or (414) 416-3272.

Bird City Wisconsin also will send a speaker to meet with your group or a committee of residents and officials to further explain the program.