The Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative (OBCI)
Lessons in Resilience: Adapting to Changing Landscapes
With Matthew Shumar, Program Coordinator, OBCI
Betsey O’Hagan: Welcome, I’m Betsey O’Hagan, Digital Strategist and Network Developer for the Council of Ohio Audubon Chapters (COAC) and we’re here today talking with Matthew Shumar who is Program Coordinator for the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative (OBCI). Matthew, I’d like to say hello and welcome you!
Matthew Shumar: Thank you, thanks for calling me today, Betsey.
Betsey O’Hagan: Well, we’re looking forward to the conversation. We have a couple of simple questions, and you know so much, so I’m excited to hear about what it is you have to offer and share with our listeners about what it is you do and more about how we can learn about the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative and all that it does to promote conservation in the State of Ohio and probably elsewhere.
So, if I may begin, Matt, what is your background? And when and why did you get involved in birding and then ultimately, in the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative?
Matthew Shumar: My background is in Wildlife Biology. I have a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree both in Wildlife Science and Forest Science. The focus of the research and the work that I’ve done over the past fifteen years or so has been specifically on ornithology and landscape ecology. So I’m really interested in species distributions, why they occur and where they occur on the landscape and how human impacts influence and change those distributions over time.
I am not a native Ohioan. I came here about ten years ago to coordinate the State Breeding Bird Atlas. I came in on that about half way through the project to take over leadership there. I finished the field seasons out at the end of 2011 and then we published those results three years ago in a book, “The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Ohio”.
While I was working on the Atlas, I became involved with the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative. At the time, as Chair of their Conservation Planning and Research Committee, which is really focused on synthesizing a lot of the work done in the states, really stepping down from continental and regional plans to work on bird conservation in Ohio. In 2012, I became the Chair of that committee.
Then, about three years ago, the project coordinator at the time, Amanda Duren, had left to take another position working for the American Bird Conservancy in Pennsylvania and the timing was about right and I was really familiar with all the partners in OBCI, so that’s how I got involved with the organization taking over as project coordinator and doing that since about 2016.
History of the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative
Betsey O’Hagan: Very good. That gives us a nice understanding of how you became involved and how different things developed. Can you tell us just a little more about the history of the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative? How did it get started and who was involved and any other information you might share with us?
Matthew Shumar: Yes, sure, I’d be happy to. OBCI got started in 2004. That came out of an interest in stepping down a lot of the successful partnerships that had been implemented for bird conservation since about the 1980’s.
So, if we think about throughout North America, the United States and Canadian governments had been working together and created the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in the 1980’s and began working on additional plans throughout the 1990’s.
That spawned a lot of working partnerships, like ‘Partners in Flight’, regional joint ventures, and so here in Ohio, we have two regional joint ventures that overlap the state, so the Appalachian Mountain Joint Ventures, which covers southeastern Ohio and then many of the states from the southeast all the way up through New York, and then the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Joint Venture, which covers most of the rest of the state.
These partnerships were really working to synthesize and coordinate between organizations in the area for bird conservation. That’s what Partners in Flight had been doing and they had worked to develop a number of plans to synthesize the information that we had on bird populations and trends in those species and what we needed to do for successful conservation strategies.
At the time, there was a state-wide Partners in Flight group in the late 1990’s and into the early 2000’s. At that time there was a broad interest in many of these regional collaboratives in stepping down what had been done with the North American Bird Conservation Initiative and Partners in Flight in addressing more fine scale statewide needs.
So, Ohio was one of the first states to develop a statewide Bird Conservation Initiative. That spawned out of the Partners in Flight working group for the state. In the early 2000’s it became an official consortium in 2004, so OBCI is itself not really an organization, it’s more of a consortium of agencies and institutions within Ohio and surrounding areas working on bird conservation.
That’s everywhere from state and federal wildlife agencies such as the Ohio Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, to groups like Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, Universities throughout the state, and any other private or public entities that are interested in bird conservation and fostering this collaborative approach.
To date, we have a little over one hundred organizations in the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative. We work together to pool resources on all the efforts that we do for bird conservation within the state and within the region.
Organization, Leadership, and Funding the OBCI Network
Betsey O’Hagan: That’s excellent. What an excellent model of building networks to share intelligence so that everyone who contributes and collaborates can more finely tune their strategic activities. And remain up to date on what the changes are, what the triggers are on different causes and effects so we can address climate change. That’s really great!
Could you tell us a little more about this fine organization and how it is funded? Who the partners are and are there leaders in it? Or are there just collaborating partner organizations, individuals, and members who lead with a strong collaborative spirit? How does the forward motion work and how is it supported financially?
Matthew Shumar: Yes, that’s a really good question. So, to get back to the organizational structure, it’s really a consortium, so we don’t have any staff on hand. I’m the only employee per se for the organization and the funding for my salary comes almost entirely to date and historically, from the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
We’ve been really fortunate in Ohio, for the most part we’ve had a fantastic and progressive state wildlife agency. They’ve had a strong interest in non-consumptive, non-game wildlife conservation, and as long as I’ve been in Ohio working on the Breeding Bird Atlas and now the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative, they’ve been incredibly supportive of that effort.
Additionally, the position is based out of the Ohio State University (OSU), the School of Environment and Natural Resources. They have been great in providing a match in resources for OBCI. That position is written through an agreement that the Division of Wildlife has had with OSU for a number of years called the Terrestrial Wildlife and Ecology Lab (TWEL).
That agreement supports a number of research projects that are done throughout the state, typically with graduate student research, both masters and doctoral students, looking at conservation issues throughout Ohio as it pertains to not only bird research but mammals and amphibians as well so there is a lot of work done here on salamanders and timber rattlesnakes and bobcats and coyotes, as well as all of the avian research that’s been done in Ohio. The resources here at our office primarily come from OSU and my salary from the Division of Wildlife.
Funding for our projects, historically, has been come and play by using those partner resources and match. So, a lot of what we do relies heavily on those partnerships and the resources they’re able to contribute to those projects. We do a lot of fundraising through grant writing and some donations as well. Charitable donations can be made through the Ohio State University Foundation. We also receive a number of grants at the national level, statewide level, and even more locally in some of the city work we do.
A lot of my duties entail not only the outreach and research aspects of OBCI, but a lot of the the administrative and fiscal operations as well. We do a lot of fundraising through grant writing for our projects.
Emergence of the OBCI Model
Betsey O’Hagan: Very good. What a wonderful example of innovation networks and innovation knowledge networks can accelerate practical and pragmatic solutions to address local issues as well as regional ones.
I love how the organization of the Initiative links in the public, through public tax dollars and donations, all the way through to connect to Ohio’s wonderful university and college research network, and then right down to our public and governmental agencies who are tasked with the job of preserving and protecting the environment and all of the various species within it.
It’s really excellent! What a great story!
What was the nucleus of how this started? Did it arise out of a small coalition meeting? How did OBCI actually coalesce in the very beginning? Do you know?
Matthew Shumar: A lot of that came out of the framework and the workings that was done at the larger regional level. I mentioned earlier that the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, and beyond that, so translating that with Partners in Flight to the continental Landbird Conservation Plan for Canada and the Continental United States.
It became clear quickly that a different framework was needed for a lot of the migratory land birds. Particularly the song birds that didn’t have a lot of direct tie-in to funding through, say, hunting permits and things like that. So, there was a real strong interest in understanding and collaborating on research needs for these species.
At the time there were local working groups that were subsets of Partners in Flight and Ohio had a Partners in Flight working group, a small group. Within that group, the Ohio State University, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, Black Swamp Bird Observatory, the Nature Conservancy, and a few other folks, really started to work together to figure out how we could take this regional or larger model and step that down to work on this hierarchical level of conservation.
It was in the early 2000’s that they started to work together to form the foundation of what was to become OBCI. And that was probably just half a dozen groups and organizations that I just mentioned that still play a huge role in bird conservation in Ohio and regionally with our important partners in OBCI.
So OBCI is governed or led by a steering committee. On that steering committee are elected officers representing organizations from within the network and that are doing conservation work in Ohio. Currently on our steering committee, we have folks from Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Ohio State University, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the Ohio Biological Survey, the University of Toledo. That is growing and changes over time. We typically have about ten to twelve people on that board to sort of lead where we’re going in a lot of our efforts.
Research Implementation and Urban Bird Conservation
Betsey O’Hagan: Very good. So, from your perspective, has OBCI helped the state of birding? The quality and quantity of research, and helped to cultivate connectivity and collaboration, and I assume, raise public conservation awareness from what it might have been before OBCI and what it is today in thanks to OBCI’s activities? Would you say that’s true? Having been with the organization for a time now, how do you view OBCI’s impact from the past to the present, and to the future?
Matthew Shumar: I think OCBI has been a tremendous resource for the state and even regionally. If we take a look back at these organizations like Partners in Flight we have an understanding that it takes a large coordinated effort to get successful conservation strategies implemented.
We’re talking about species that are highly mobile, they spend portions of their life in different parts of the globe. We’re really working together, nobody’s working in a bubble. There’s such a need for collaboration, not only for different aspects of a project, but to tackle different geographic areas as well. OBCI and groups like the Joint Ventures and Partners in Flight have been really crucial in bringing folks together from academia and the agency side so that these folks are talking to each other.
In the past, there had often been fantastic research that had been done, but getting recommendations from that research implemented into conservation work was a whole different step. So, organizations Joint Ventures, Partners in Flight and statewide conservation initiatives were really essential to quickly further conservation efforts.
I would say OBCI has been great at bringing those efforts to public awareness as well. One, just by coordinating all of our partners. There are a lot of organizations out there that do really effective outreach in terms of birding and bird conservation, like the local Audubon Society chapters, Nature Conservancy, and Black Swamp Bird Observatory, the Ohio Bluebird Society, so these groups are really great at getting that information out there.
But if we can get folks to work together that really takes it to another level and especially if we can implement some of the research and needs that has been very crucial.
One thing we’ve learned in the past few years is the urgency for urban bird conservation. Particularly, as we’re discovering through our Lights Out project. This is an effort to make urban landscapes safer for migratory birds. We’re addressing issues related to reflective glass and light. We’d only be able to approach this type of issue and implement successful conservation strategies through a network and OCBI has helped to facilitate that.
We have a lot of great partners working in all of our regional Lights Out efforts, especially in Cleveland, that’s been a landmark effort there. It’s a very challenging landscape to work in. It’s not like conservation issues we’ve dealt with typically or historically that often involve figuring out how to conserve large patches of more natural habitat.
But with a continually urbanizing landscape, we’re beginning to understand that there is an urgent need to understand how these landscapes impact wildlife and especially migratory wildlife and then implementing whatever is needed to be done within a complicated framework where there are countless stakeholders and land owners. We’re really only able to do that through a partnership like OBCI.
A Regional Model for the Anthropocene
Betsey O’Hagan: Very good. What a wonderful model, again, a network model to accelerate relationships and knowledge sharing and collaboration on different projects. So do other states have an OBCI? Does this model exist in other states and how does it usually present itself?
Matthew Shumar: There are a handful of states. To my knowledge there are about eight states that use this type of model and that has been to varying success. I’ll say the key to making sure that these types of partnerships remain effective is by having at least one paid staff member.
Only about half of that small number of states that have these types of programs have had independent paid staff. Some of them have utilized agency time as an extra duty and that’s been to lesser success and some organizations have dissipated or fizzled out simply because there’s nobody there that has the time to run this.
There are a few states, Maryland is one right now that is doing really good work and they have an active Lights Out project there and are doing a lot of bird conservation work in a really critical ecosystem in the coastal areas.
But there are not a lot of states that have replicated this and it invariably comes down to trying to figure out those funding issues. This is an increasing difficult social and political landscape to fund conservation work. I’d like to see more states take this template and run with it but a lot of states don’t have agencies that are as progressive as ours.
I don’t know that folks really appreciate the amount of diverse work that Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and especially the Division of Wildlife, really fund. Hopefully, we’ll see some more work done in other states but right now it’s on a fairly limited basis.
It Takes a Village
Betsey O’Hagan: Well, thank you.
From your perspective, you sort of have the luxury of a metaview, to see across the landscape that you’re working in, with the various partners, the different projects, and various environmental issues, and the challenges and problems that are out there that need to be addressed...can you tell us about some creative activities or innovative solutions that OBCI partners are working on in the state?
Matthew Shumar: In the past, OBCI’s network and a lot of the work we have done has been informed by bird researchers. We’ve worked closely with folks at academic institutions or wildlife agencies whether that’s the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Ohio Division of Wildlife, or the U.S Forest Service, but there’s a real need - as we’re understanding through our Lights Out program - to tackle conservation in urban landscapes.
That requires a whole new level of partnerships and approaches to conservation and often getting outside of our bubble, so we need to engage the folks that aren’t bird researchers or aren’t conservation organizations. We need a better tie and partnership with private industry and individual residents throughout the state.
We’re still trying to figure out how best to achieve that through our Lights Out efforts and we are having some successes there which is very exciting. So, working with local government has been important but also engaging some of the private businesses in these areas as well.
Moving forward and currently, there is a real interest in growing OBCI’s network to not only include these traditional conservation organizations in our work but private businesses or individuals who have an interest or see a mutual benefit in a lot of the conservation work that we do. We hope OBCI grows to be a larger network that involves a lot of these different types of organizations and individuals.
Understanding Science in Complicated Environments
Betsey O’Hagan: What you’re expressing really hits home with the acceleration of the need to fully embrace our environment and all of the challenges we are now facing in every aspect of our lives. Conservation or bird watching at one time would have been secondary, like art class in school, and should the budget needed to be cut, it is the first to go. From my view, it seems to be similar in conservation.
I love how you’re talking about how working together collaboratively is a way to help address the accelerating polarities, the political and social issues, compounded by imploding biological systems because we have so many people on the planet and limited resources, and then the advancement of technology, where you can really in one click communicate, as well as transfer money - getting things done. So, everything is so accelerated.
So, I love how you’re talking about this and how working together can really, in a networked way, and a collaborative way, can help to address these things.
So, what do you see for the future? What do you think people should pay attention to? And what would you suggest people do to get more involved, where can they learn more, and where can they donate to help your wonderful efforts?
Matthew Shumar: They can go to our website at https://obcinet.org/ We also have an additional website for the Lights Out efforts and all of those efforts can be found at https://ohiolightsout.org/ I would encourage folks to look at the resources there.
Because of our past and our interest in regional and local conservation efforts and tying that into what conservation agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ohio Division of Wildlife are doing, we have a strong interest in ornithological research and bringing that to a level further of understanding that habitat is needed throughout Ohio.
It’s interesting when we think about the political landscape and even our technological landscape, everybody is so tied in and yet some things are often surface level and we take for granted. I think we’re losing some interest in our understanding of science as well. I would encourage people to check out the scientific research we do because a lot of that informs our recommendations for conservation strategies.
As we’ve mentioned a few times, the human population globally, and especially within Ohio, is growing. The need to understand our impact on those systems is critically important. It goes beyond just claiming preservation of areas but really understanding how we affect that system and understanding different conservation approaches because sometimes they may seem counter intuitive.
We need to understand how our energy use plays into all of this, how things like non-native invasive species ties into all this, and how feral and free ranging cats have tremendous impacts on wildlife populations.
So, really going beyond an interest and a passion for the outdoors and conservation, which is a wonderful start, but also fostering a love for science itself. Because a lot of that will become more and more important as we get into a more complicated ecological and urbanized system.
Betsey O’Hagan: Well, thank you so much! It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for sharing all of this wonderful information.
Matthew Shumar: It was my pleasure.
Betsey O’Hagan: You’re welcome! We are all certainly more informed about the good work of the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative and all that it does. Thank you!
This article is about the history of Council of Ohio Audubon Chapters (hereafter, COAC) and role of Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society (hereafter, WCAS) and other supporting Ohio chapters in the reactivation of COAC.
WCAS built a network consisting of contacts in each of the 14 currently active chapters in Ohio. Work on this network began in 2017 and continued in 2018. The outcome of this effort celebrates what the Audubon chapters in Ohio are doing now and inspire them to do what they could be doing but are not doing. The WCAS initiative connects to National Audubon's strategic initiatives in collaboration with these chapters and promotion of their efforts in science, engagement, and conservation.
In 2017, WCAS began in earnest to pursue the goal of building a network with the 13 other active Audubon chapters in Ohio in order to collaborate with them on organizational development and conservation projects. Besides celebrating what the Audubon chapters in Ohio are doing now and inspiring them to do what they could be doing but are not doing, our desired outcomes continue to be to bridge the gap left by five former chapters in community engagement and introduce their unserved areas to Audubon's strategic initiatives.
COAC was active as an informal organization from 1970-2000. Its mission was to promote chapter development by sharing best practices, brainstorming solutions to common problems, and developing relationships in workshops and retreats. Despite the best efforts of the Audubon Ohio (AO) state office to revitalize all chapters in Ohio in the 2,000's, five chapters become inactive, significantly diminishing the Audubon presence in the state. The AO office dissolved in 2009 and COAC fell dormant in the same year. Since then, the remaining 14 chapters have functioned with little communication from NAS. They are hard-pressed to reach communities throughout Ohio and are primarily engaged in their own local communities. Until late 2017, no collaboration occurred among them. They had been, to quote the NAS strategic plan, "a collection of conservation islands working passionately in relative isolation, inventing different solutions to the same challenges, over and over." WCAS intended to inspire them to address "shared national conservation goals, priorities, and practices" by meeting together.
In the summer of 2017, WCAS conceived the idea of bringing together the 14 active chapters to carry on the COAC mission. We developed a preliminary network of contacts in the chapters, reached out to them, and invited them to a planning meeting October 1, 2017 to find common ground and determine the level of interest holding a more intensive workshop in 2018. Six chapters, including Columbus Audubon Society, Firelands Audubon Society, Audubon Society of Greater Cleveland, Canton Audubon Society, Blackbrook Audubon Society, and Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society, attended the planning meeting.
At our October 1, 2017 meeting, the representatives of the six chapters developed an agenda that included subjects for discussion that day. These subjects were as follows: growing membership; recruiting volunteers; improving relationships, communications, and interactions; improving member involvement; asking for help for projects; creating and completing conservation projects; and raising funds. Following discussions within focus groups on these subjects, the chapter representatives laid the groundwork for a larger workshop in March 2018. We planned to invite other regional conservation organizations to participate in the March workshop, including Black Swamp Bird Observatory and Ohio Ornithological Society.
Another activity is that WCAS uses digital media and content marketing to raise awareness of what we are doing. The Lights Out Cleveland project is an example. Lights Ohio Cleveland is dedicated to reducing migrating bird mortality rates due to building collisions and increasing data collection success with volunteer training, public outreach, and education. WCAS provided marketing support and outreach that attracted volunteers who collected data that showed there were 1,200 fatal collisions – 255 collisions in one day. In addition, these volunteers collected birds that survived collisions, turning over 640 birds for rehabilitation and release by the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Bay Village, Ohio. Here is a testimonial from the project leader: "I am pleased to say that 40 people attended on October 26. Almost all were new people and many learned of us from WCAS! Thank you so much for your help with this project!" - Amy LeMonds, Director of Wildlife, Lake Erie Nature & Science Center. A result of this data is that Cleveland Alliance is now coordinating with businesses in Cleveland to turn their lights out during high-collision times to save birds.
We anticipated that the workshop in March 2018 would open up discussions with the participants on aligning their efforts with Audubon's strategic initiatives.
WCAS intends to put into play what NAS calls "a fundamental shift from being a collection of ideas to asserting real leadership." Another outcome of our efforts in building a network with the Audubon chapters in Ohio will be the growth in outreach by all of the chapters.
Here are some examples of how WCAS is increasing our outreach in our own area: Attendance at our popular Second Saturday Bird Walks at the Rocky River (Ohio) Nature Center grew 76 percent from January 2016 to December 2017. Overall, our field trip attendance grew 2.3 percent in 2017. Our e-subscribers grew 67 percent in 2017. Through this project, we expect to expand the outreach of all of the chapters into the rural areas beyond the borders of their own urban areas, thus drawing citizens into the Audubon fold who are not connected as a result of the lack of current outreach.
These are examples of the benefits of chapters reaching out, growing connectivity, and working together to benefit the greater community. When one chapter connects, all chapters connect.
Greater Akron Audubon Society ENDORSEMENT of COAC
"These are challenging times for conservation efforts and for organized groups in general. Greater Akron Audubon Society is celebrating its 85th year in existence next month and it has been one of the longest continuous histories of Christmas Bird Counts in the U.S. Yet active participation in most other chapter activities is at an all-time low.
It is our hope that this rejuvenation of the Council of Ohio Audubon Chapters (COAC) will mutually benefit all chapters and affiliate organizations and simultaneously move our conservation causes and needs to the forefront.
We stand on the shoulders of the likes of Dan Best and Alan Dolan and many others who have long championed and envisioned such solidarity and cohesiveness. Let's not let them down."
~ Trustees, Greater Akron Audubon Society
Jim Jablonski, President, Black River Audubon Society, reflects on National Audubon Society's expanding role in environmental activism, historical success of chapter birding activities, the restorative power of local chapter conservation projects, and an environment under partisan attack.
Black River Audubon Society History to Present
By James Jablonski, President
Introduction & Background
Betsey O’Hagan: Hello, I’m Betsey O’Hagan, Web and Marketing Strategist for the Council of Ohio Audubon Chapters (COAC). I’d like to welcome Jim Jablonski who is an engaged and active leader with Black River Audubon Society based in the western area of Cleveland, Ohio. I’d like to introduce Jim and we have a couple of questions we can discuss.
Jim is going to talk about his connection at the local level to Black River Audubon Society, historical points about the chapter, and interestingly, he’s going to reflect on how birding is different today from the 1950’s.
Jim Jablonski: Good morning! How are you? I’m looking forward to this interview.
Above: Listen to the interview as a podcast at COAC SoundCloud.
Betsey O’Hagan: Could you speak to your background along with when, how, and why you got involved in birding and with Audubon?
Jim Jablonski: Okay. To tell you the truth, I had absolutely no interest in birds until I retired from my full time job when I was sixty years old. I like to tell people the story about how I decided to put up bird feeders because I was thinking, “What do old people do?” and I thought, “Well, they watch birds!”
The first morning after I put up the feeder, I happened to look out and I saw this yellow bird dropping down out of the sky to the feeder. I had no idea what it was. I had bought a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, and ran to get it.
The first bird I ever identified was a goldfinch! Believe it or not, at sixty years old and goldfinches are all around us and I had never seen one. I never cared enough to see one. So, until that moment, I had very little interest in birding.
From that point on, my interest was sparked and I joined Black River Audubon - but I was still working a part-time job. I did not become very involved until I became a board member.
I was asked to become a board member in 2013. That is when my interest really started to take off. I joined Audubon because being retired I wanted to be around people again. I thought that was a good way to do that, in addition to birding. I’ve found some of the most cordial people I’ve ever met. I think birders are that way in general and I’ve been a part of it ever since and will continue to as long as possible!
Unfortunately, that is the story of many people - not starting until they retire. I’ve always regretted I did not become interested earlier, I am not the birder I could have been because I started so late. I want to make the most of what I can do right now.
National Audubon Society
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you. Could you help listeners to understand more about National Audubon and its mission? What it does and how it relates to local chapters?
Jim Jablonski: People think of it as the bird watching group but it’s more than that and becoming more and more. It has been from the very start, a conservation group. Maybe that has lapsed a little bit at times with its long history going back to the nineteenth century. It started that way and is definitely becoming that way again because of the environment and birds are under attack despite the fact we just celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the Bird Migratory Treaty Act.
More so than ever, the environment is threatened. And it’s coming from the top levels of our government and country. Something I never expected to see even though I said I had no real interest in birding, and I really didn’t. I have had a general interest in the environment all my life. I thought in the 1970’s, “Well, we really turned the corner!” We’re turning back in the old direction I’m afraid.
National Audubon is becoming more involved as an activist group and also more involved in supporting local chapters and projects that might help their local environment.
We were involved in one last year trying to bring back a small area of that was donated to the Elyria by our founder, Jack Smith. The property is right off the near downtown area in a very rundown neighborhood. We’re trying to bring it back as a place migratory birds and pollinators can benefit from. It is adjacent to the historic Black River. That is one project National Audubon helped us with quite a bit. We received some good publicity as a result of that and we are trying for another similar project through the Burke Plants for Birds Fund. We’ve applied for another project through the Burke Plants for Birds Fund for a project in Oberlin, Ohio. The local chapters need to show the initiative to apply for those grants and have some expertise to know what is appropriate for their local area. Luckily, we have both right now and it’s been a good relationship with National Audubon in that way.
That touches upon some of the things National Audubon is about nowadays.
Audubon Great Lakes
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you so much. You attended the recent Audubon Great Lakes conference. Could you talk about how National Audubon reaches into the various regions of the United States and subsequently into different locales? Could you speak about how National Audubon is organized according to regional flyways?
Jim Jablonski: Yes, the conference was last fall and hosted by Audubon Great Lakes located in Chicago, Illinois and serves the Great Lake states. Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and reaches to Pennsylvania, New York which did not seem to be as well represented as the mid-western states. The conference had a wide variety of topics discussed.
The ones I was interested in, and it's not just a midwestern thing but is an issue within Audubon. I was interested in presenters who presented on diversity among Audubon members. As I pointed out in the beginning, I didn’t get involved until I was sixty. If you look at local Audubon groups, and this is not present at the national level, but at the local level the groups are largely made up of people fifty to sixty and over and almost predominately white. There’s diversity in gender but not in terms of age or ethnicity. Those are the topics I was interested in and those are not just midwestern concerns.
We have to make local Audubon's much more diverse, I think it would be more effective. It’s not just that we would be reaching out in some paternalistic way, those people, we actually need them in our chapters. For one think, the young are going to be experiencing problems in the future that we aren’t solving today and we need to get them involved.
Minority groups need to be involved because they’re the ones being impacted the most by environmental degradation. We all are, but minority groups in particular. They can bring a very important point of view to local chapters and the projects that they ought to be pursuing.
What Are Flyways?
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you. Why are the regions called, “flyways”.
Jim Jablonski: Different regions of the country have different environments and different relationships with birds. Ours, centers around water, the Great Lakes. In the southwest, it would be different although water is part of it there also. Many of the birds have adapted to the hot, dry conditions there. Every part of the country has its own local concerns that may be addressed better locally than regionally then National Audubon can by itself. I think it’s organized in that way for that reason. Also, flyways are major migration routes for birds from the subtropics to the subpolar and polar regions. There is an obligation to maintain the stopover areas for those wonderful birds that we enjoy every May and October. So, Great Lakes has a special function to see things are well maintained in that respect also.
Betsey O’Hagan: That’s very interesting and certainly links all the way back to local chapters and their endeavors to conserve the local natural areas. It’s all one system.
Jim Jablonski: In part our concern in the project last year was that it is habitat along a Lake Erie tributary. That was one of our reasons for becoming involved in that. We found out it’s going to need constant maintenance. That is another thing local chapters ought to be aware of, that a project is never finally a success it has to be continuous.
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you Jim. That certainly helps us to understand the interconnectivity and appreciate the various relationships between nature, people, and geography.
Black River Audubon Society History
Coming back to Black River Audubon Society and your interest in it, why did become interested in the history of the chapter?
Jim Jablonski: My avocation was interest in different branches of history. I became increasingly interested in local history since I retired and my interest in birds was growing. I realized as we were doing this park project last year, I didn’t think I paid attention to when Black River Audubon began. The city had already put up a sign at our park, “Black River Audubon Park” and they included the founding date of the chapter. Sixty years ago! I didn’t realize it and became interested in having a celebration for it.
Being the Board President, I brought it up at the board meeting. Everyone agreed and we planned a celebration that we had in the fall that we combined with an outstanding speaker, Julie Zickefoose, scheduled on the chapter speaker program.
I also became interested in chapter history and learned about essentially our founder, Jack Smith, even though others were involved. I wrote a few articles and particularly about the chapter’s early days history for our newsletter.
My research discovered there were many ways birding was similar and the chapter was similar then as now, but there were many ways it is quite different. That makes history interesting, similarities and differences between times. There were quite a few of both between 1958 and 2018. Black River Audubon then and now.
I also found out that Jack Smith, was one of the co-founders of the Council of Ohio Audubon Chapters (COAC) back in 1969. He was instrumental in it but I do not know enough about his involvement to speak to it now.
Black River Audubon Society Leadership and Activity
Betsey O’Hagan: Who were the leaders of Black River Audubon Society and how many people were involved? How did the chapter all come together?
Jim Jablonski: Jack Smith was always considered to be the founder even though there were others. The reason for that is that as a young man, he was born 1927 or so, graduating from high school around the end of World War II, and he was an avid birder right from the very beginning. He had a certain amount of charisma about him in a very quiet way, and he was able to collect a number of friends and talk them into bird watching at a local park. Not the one I’ve been mentioning but an old park, the first park in Elyria, Ohio called Cascade Park because of two waterfalls. It is located right in the middle of the city.
There was also another park donated by a founding family in Elyria called Elywood Park right across the river from Cascade park. Elywood was only about twenty acres or so but it was heavily wooded right in the center of town but it drew quite a few birds to it.
Jack Smith started bird walks in the park first mentioned in records in 1951. They began drawing quite a few birders to these Sunday bird walks. Every Sunday! They would go on bird walks weekly. Today, chapters schedule bird hikes once a month. Back then they did them weekly on Sunday mornings. I guess the 1950’s were not the church going population we think! A lot of people were birding on Sunday mornings at the very same park every week. Today we have to travel all over but then, there were not the opportunities to travel to other parks at that time. Metro Parks in Lorain county were not even in existence then. They went to Elywood Park and Cascade Park on a weekly basis. It seems it might have been just during the migration seasons, in the spring and fall.
These walks grew and grew. It was reported that occasionally they drew one hundred people to Elywood Park on Sunday mornings! Which is amazing as sometimes our monthly walks don’t draw ten people. That was through the 1950’s. By 1958 people wanted to formalize the group and started a bird club associated with National Audubon Society. A number of civic leaders, all of them, and some well set because the 1950’s were an entirely different time for Elyria and the rest of the country. They met at the local YMCA, encouraged by Jack Smith, about twenty-five people came together.
People in general in the 1950’s were constantly joining groups, that they were very social. They had five at the original meeting and it quickly expanded from there. But not only did they have joiners but people who were committed to working for the social group. I am amazed because today when I join a group I often become president because very few people have the time or the inclination to take over the positions. Back then it seemed many, many did. And they were all younger people. At this time, Jack was probably about thirty years old and so were most of the others. They had the director of the YMCA and local businessmen involved in the group. They had Perry F. Johnson, if you’re familiar with Lorain MetroParks Sandy Ridge Preserve, the building is dedicated to Perry Johnson, he was the chief naturalist for the MetroParks for years. A number of school teachers were involved and by early March 1952 they had their first regular meeting, moving very quickly because people were really involved more than birders are today. So, it was a different in that respect.
Birding in the 1950's in Elyria, Ohio
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you. You’ve outlined an interesting case of how a chapter came together and the different times in society. Your story shows how activity often comes down to leadership and passion and the willingness of people to get connected, participate, and help make things happen.
Jim Jablonski: I do want to point out because I can comment on the differences between then and now, and these walks did draw between sixty and one hundred people. They continued to after the group was formed at the very same park one week after the next.
Another thing was the local newspaper was the source of bringing people together. It wasn’t a personal computer! The local newspaper is still the main source of getting the word out about our meetings. At all of our meetings I will ask, what brought you in? Where did you see the publicity about the meeting? Almost invariably, its one local newspaper or another. Mainly because the people who are interested are older people who are still readers of newspapers. In the paper, they would announce every bird walk and the results of every bird walk. You wouldn’t dream today of sending in a list of birds to the paper to have them publish it! The local media was very supportive.
They also said in the media that the bird walks would have four sub groups each with their own leader. Today we have eight to ten birders in a walk. Back then, they had eighty to one hundred people and they needed to split up into groups. They would go to different parts of the park and they would have four, and maybe even more, group leaders as they go out on these morning walks. Absolutely amazing!
What struck me was the difference between then and now because I always thought people weren’t that interested in the 1950’s. I knew it was around but I didn’t think that that many people were interested.
Was it more popular then, than now? I don’t really think so. I think that there are many more birders today than back then. But how do we prefer to do our birdwatching? That is what’s changed.
I think today we prefer to bird individually or with one or two friends. Back then, people loved to be in groups. And they loved to learn from different group members. Today, how do we learn? We can learn individually. You can learn on the computer. You can bird by yourself. On your cell phone and learn. I don’t think it's the same as learning from other birders first hand, face to face. You are learning in the moment and picking up on the emotions of others.
But people today, and I’m not certain why this is, prefer to be away from groups. Groups to younger people, especially, are a hassle. I always hear ‘you get involved in politics’ and they don’t want that. It’s unfortunate, but maybe times will change again.
Chapter Leadership Legacy
Betsey O’Hagan: Well, that’s fascinating! You’ve talked about the origins of the chapter and the leadership, how many people were involved, and then Jack Smith’s role in the founding.
Jim Jablonski: Jack Smith rarely wanted to be in the central circle role, but he kept things organized, he kept it going, he was the spark that got everyone involved. He had a quiet charisma. Unfortunately, I did not get to know him well. I was not fully involved until his passing. I was asked to be on the board the year after he died. Although I met him and could pick up on his personality, I never got to know him well, unfortunately.
Betsey O’Hagan: Those are good skills even today in leadership! So he as a leader with his individual personality, he was able to sustain and grow the interest in birding in your area through the chapter activities. Over his lifetime, how was he a leader in that way?
Jim Jablonski: Everything. A lot of this I’m getting through second hand, but when I joined the board just a year after he passed away, he was approaching legendary status. He’d often be brought up in meetings about the great things he would do. The big help he would provide in a quiet way. He didn’t want to be known very much for what he was doing. Jack was also very successful in life, he would help out, every chapter has some funding problems, and he would help out when he needed to.
He is one reason why even today and even though we don’t have a great budget, we are free of fundraising concerns such as what I heard about other groups at the COAC meeting this past summer. People were talking about what they do for fundraising, and I thought, “Good Lord, we don’t have to do that.” It’s not that we’re extremely well funded and we can do anything we dream of, but we don’t have to hound people for gifts every December. What a great gift he gave in that respect. Not even thinking of the finances, but thinking of the freedom that he gave us. I was told at a meeting that his comments were we should never have to worry about funds. We should have to be concerned about birds.
We’re not funded like National Audubon, but our survival is not at stake. It’s important in a town like Elyria that has been so depressed since the early part of this century.
Betsey O’Hagan: That’s a wonderful story and certainly instructive to Audubon chapters, their members and leaders today, how one person can make such a difference.
Jim Jablonski: It’s not just the way he directly helped the group, it was the way he was able to draw a large membership to the group because those people were also sources of help to the group, it was not just him. But a lot of it was his personality.
Betsey O’Hagan: That is fascinating how one person with such a constructive, positive attitude can make such a difference, and even in their absence, continue to generate these ripples of goodwill and support citizen science for a good and better culture. And taking care of our planet. That is fascinating. Thank you for sharing that story.
Jim Jablonski: And that’s just the way to describe it.
How Birding Has Changed
Betsey O’Hagan: Is there anything you’d like to sum up about how birding is different and similar today? How does birding work today from your vantage point as a historian?
Jim Jablonski: It’s different today because it's more individualized. The going and watching birds is more of an individual thing. I think that’s one reason for the incredible popularity of the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. It’s really for the most part, an individual project. People want to see their individual numbers of birds and compare them to other people’s. So there is still a little bit of a social component but not in the same kind of way.
We want to bird electronically more often, we want to learn electronically rather than with other people because we maybe we can read more, more quickly. Whereas if you’re out with a group it's kind of hit-and-miss, did you ask the right person? And then you get sidetracked in the conversation, that’s the way conversations are and that’s the way they should be! So, you might not learn as quickly that way. But I do think you learn more meaningfully that way. And you may be more likely to retain when you learn that way than if you read something on your cell phone. That is one way it’s different, it’s more individualized than back then.
In ways that it is similar, is that people have the same passion for birds I think but people choose to pursue it in different ways. They do it more often through reading, through the Internet and different websites rather than through other people.
The other thing that I think may be different today is that back then many more birders were younger people. Today, when I go on bird walks, everybody is usually fifty and older which is something we really have to do something about. Don’t ask me how to get younger people involved. Some just happen to be and they end up being the best damn birders you’d ever want to meet! When they get involved when they’re ten or younger because at those ages they learn to identify with it and they also learn much better. I’ve always told younger people that learning about birds is like learning a language, you have to start when you’re young to really become good at it. I also tell them you have to start when your eyesight is good and your hearing is fine!
I try to encourage young birders because at age eighteen it’s going to be very hard to sway them to birding. When they’re six, seven, eight, that’s probably the best time to get them involved. Some will lose interest but some will retain it for life.
Betsey O’Hagan: In closing, is there anything you see for the future or that you would recommend the birding community pay attention to?
Jim Jablonski: I would not have thought of this three years ago, that we have to keep on top of what’s going on in Washington. Because it seems that right out of the gate two years ago, the environment started coming under attack and we need to pay attention to that. It’s sickening that I have to say that and I wish it was something more philosophical, but it is something very practical, it’s politics, and that is something we need to pay attention to.
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you Jim. A great way for people to do more and connect up with Black River Audubon Society in Lorain county area.
Jim Jablonski: People can check our website which is www.blackriveraudubon.org and we are on Facebook and our mailing address is Black River Audubon Society, P.O. Box 33, Elyria, Ohio 44035 and a lot of people still prefer to contact us that way.
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you for taking the time to tell us more about the efforts and service that National Audubon provides all the way down to the local chapters and the people, their leadership and contributions, and how birding has evolved and is changing but that the primary target, what we must all keep in mind, is to safeguard our environment and that has never changed.
Jim Jablonski: And it never will! We’re always going to have to be paying attention no matter who is in power.
Betsey O’Hagan: Thank you Jim.
Jim Jablonski: Thank you, I appreciate you doing this.
Stories contributed by members, individuals, and affiliates who care about wild animals and habitat conservation.