Interview with Susan Bonfield, coordinator of International Migratory Bird Day

Interview by Diane Jukofsky, Rainforest Alliance

“I don’t know of another program that has brought together the number of Latin American, United States and Canadian biologists — working together for conservation — as this program has.”

International Migratory Bird Day is an all-American celebration, spanning the continents to focus attention on one of the most important and spectacular events in the life of a migratory bird — its journey between its summer and winter homes. Under the wing of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, IMBD is observed in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central America through bird festivals, bird walks, education programs, and fundraisers. IMBD offers activity kits, posters, and other materials, in English or Spanish, to help groups interested in holding their own events and programs. The IMBD Web site has more information.

Susan Bonfield, coordinator of IMBD, describes the program’s goals and reflects on the impact it has had.

Question: How did International Migratory Bird Day come about and has it been effective?

Bonfield: The people who created migratory bird day — folks with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Cornell Lab for Ornithology — wanted a way to address concerns about declining migratory bird populations. This is an issue that’s shared among the United States, Latin America and Canada.

The comments I hear from people, which convince me that IMBD is effective, are: “You provide the materials that we need to do our jobs.” We’re able to offer the educational tools that any group can use to design a program that will inform the public about birds and bird conservation. Groups that use Migratory Bird Day materials include Audubon Society chapters, schoolteachers, staff of parks and wildlife refuges, biologists, and birdwatchers.

The materials are also popular with teachers, who want information they can use in the classroom. And some teachers may be bird watchers too, or have their own personal interest in birds and want to bring this passion into the classroom. We have a variety of materials that address different age groups and that can be used with families, in home school situations, with elementary and middle school students, and in high schools.

We have a different theme for Migratory Bird Day every year, but the theme doesn’t just disappear. Recently, the theme was shade coffee — coffee grown traditionally, under the shade of tropical trees in Latin America, provides excellent habitat for migratory birds. All our materials related to shade coffee are still available, and many groups still use them. Many of the larger programs — festivals and multi-day bird events continue to have stations where they provide information about shade-grown coffee. Read more about shade-grown coffee and the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture program.

Q: Now that the campaign is 10 years old, do you have a sense of what its impact has been?

Bonfield: The program has truly grown. Once it was considered a “springtime” program, but now it’s a year-round program. We no longer promote just one day, but rather we encourage groups to hold an International Migratory Bird Day event whenever it works best for them, whether it’s spring or fall. That takes into consideration Southern states and countries, as well those in the North. Now we keep the office open all year round.

Q: Who funds the program?

Bonfield: All the materials are sponsored. The program is co-coordinated by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and US Fish and Wildlife Service, with additional sponsorship from the US Forest Service, Conoco Philips, USAID, Swift Binocular Company, Birder’s World magazine, National Parks Service, Sanctuary coffee, Defenders of Wildlife, Eagle Optics, the US Bureau of Land Management, and the US Department of Defense.

Q: What events organized by different groups seem to you to be particularly successful and worth replicating?

Bonfield: The Environmental Information Resource Center of New Jersey holds a Bird Weekend and Bird-A-Thon. The program has grown tremendously, and they use our materials every year. International Migratory Bird Day is one of their largest events held by the Cincinnati Zoo; they base many of their educational programs on the theme we select each year. Last year, Pioneer Park Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, held their first Migratory Bird Day event, had a lot of success with it, and have already emailed me that they’re planning their next event.

Q: Are NGOs in Latin America involved?

Bonfield: Yes, definitely, though we’re not getting as many materials into Latin America as we’d like. One challenge we have is that when we develop materials, they are translated into Spanish, but often they don’t work that well from a Latin American point-of-view. Some groups feel that this isn’t a problem — it depends on the group. Recently we had a request for materials from a group in Nicaragua — Grupo de Aves — that held a small Migratory Bird Day event last year, so they are planning to something again this year.

Q: One of the birds on this year’s poster is a thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha), which isn’t a migratory bird. Why did you include this species?

Bonfield: This year’s art really diverted from only migratory bird species. Our goal was to show bird species that have encouraged people to act in support of birds and bird conservation. And so each bird depicted represents a different issue. The thick-billed parrot represents the bird trade, and the enactment of CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species). The brown pelican represents the development of the National Wildlife Refuge System in the United States. The snowy egret represents efforts to eliminate the plume trade. Every year the bird species in our poster are species that people are able to see no matter where they are in the Western Hemisphere, at least through Central America. (Read more about efforts to save the thick-billed parrot).

Q: There are many groups in Latin America that are involved in migratory bird habitat conservation projects, and many of them developed these projects in response to available funding from United States foundations and agencies. Do you think the availability of funding for migratory bird conservation in Latin America has put too much emphasis on conserving migratory birds as opposed to resident birds that may be more important, culturally, to NGOs in Latin America?

Bonfield I suppose there is a certain amount of politics involved, but I have to say that the availability of funding has resulted in truly incredible and creative conservation and environmental education programs in Latin America. Also, I don’t know of another program that has brought together the number of Latin American, United States and Canadian biologists — working together for conservation — as this program has.

The emphasis on migratory birds has also made everyone recognize that we’re all responsible for this resource. When biologists first started talking about the decline of migratory bird populations, they talked mostly about rainforest destruction, which put all the blame primarily south of the United States. I think that bringing everyone together has forced us to recognize and address environmental issues regardless of borders. There are problems and issues in Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada, all of which are affecting birds.

Q: What’s the biggest problem you face as coordinator of IMBD?

Bonfield: Just keeping up with the demand for information. This year, people were calling me back in December asking me when the information would be ready. The second challenge is to increase usage in Latin America and ensure that the materials are more appropriate for teachers and groups there. It would truly help to have folks in Latin America who are specifically interested in becoming more involved by promoting International Migratory Bird Day.

It’s a wonderful program, and it’s really fun, rewarding, and educational. I have a great time working on it. And for me, one of the perfect things is that it’s like a new program every year, because every year we have a new theme and new materials, new partners, and new artists.

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