A Town Gone to the Birds

By Ruth Heil

As I sat in the Rose Garden last summer at Cedar Creek Parkway in Allentown, I thought I heard a little bird call, “Did you hear? Did you hear? Allentown loves us. It’s clear.” Maybe my imagination had gotten away from me, but the reality was Allentown had been officially named a Bird Town, and that was certainly something to sing about.

The designation came from Audubon Pennsylvania – a chapter of the famous organization bearing a name synonymous with beauty and birds. With the honor, Allentown had accepted a measure of “responsibility to develop and implement programs that support birds, improve habitat, increase involvement in citizen science, conduct bird programs including walks and workshops and emphasize the region’s role in the Atlantic Flyway,” as described by Peter Saenger, president of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society.

A hefty challenge, it is one that will be met, especially as more residents begin thinking about the birds in their own yards.


When the historical character John James Audubon wandered through the forests and thickets of his father’s Mill Grove Estate in Audubon, Pennsylvania – about 40 miles south of Allentown – he found a quantity and variety of the birdlife so inspiring he turned it into art, painting life-size renditions onto watercolor paper. His work grew to make up one of the most expensive books of all time, “Birds of America,” bringing a price at auction of $11.5 million in London in 2010.

More than 30 years after the artist’s death, a family friend, George Bird Grinnell, honored the Audubon family’s love for birds when, in 1886, he named his conservation organization The Audubon Society.

While Pennsylvania’s landscape has changed significantly since those days (six birds in Audubon’s work are now extinct), the Lehigh Valley remains an avian place. The legacy of conservationist, Harry C. Trexler, fills Allentown with a beautiful park system. The city is near a superhighway in the sky, the Kittatinny Ridge, on which Hawk Mountain Sanctuary sits. Birds also pass over Allentown on their way to nearby Important Bird Areas – sites that provide essential habitat for nesting, roosting, wintering and feeding.

Steven Saffier, director of the Audubon At Home program for Audubon Pennsylvania said, “As part of the Atlantic Flyway, Allentown certainly serves as stopover grounds for many birds. Green patches (parks, backyards, gardens) are islands of habitat where birds will make landfall to rest and refuel.”

And while the urban concrete-and-glass environment seems inhospitable, birds live in cities. Weighing about three ounces, a songbird can make a home in the smallest of places.


Uncanny as it may be, humans do not always do what is best for their own health. A mother puts her child’s needs first, frequently skimping on sleep or diet. However, as she tends to the infant – supplying a clean home, nutritious food and peaceful surroundings – she improves the quality of her own life.

The same is true for the birds. Even if we are unwilling to demand what is best for ourselves, when a tiny bird, beautiful in both temperament and style, flies into our yard, we are inspired to act. We conserve the trees, plants, soil and streams and thus improve our own lives. The birds even return the favor, pollinating plants, devouring pesky bugs, filling our days with song and fluttering into our hearts.


Victoria Bastidas is an environmental educator who uses the outdoor classroom to expose kids to science, mathematics, physics, writing, art and more. Working with the Allentown School District, she teaches The Early Bird Program to elementary students who are part of the district’s Start Your Day Right Program. There, kids discover the physics of flight and lift and the importance of mathematics and other studies. Through this Bird Town initiative, she sneaks learning into a desire to watch a bird outside the window, advancing knowledge and inspiring careers while meeting educational standards.

Meanwhile, she found that only 1 out of 10 inner city students could identify a common robin. She said, “Within our population, kids are not getting out. There is a disconnect.” That is something The Early Bird Program aims to change, as do legacy gardens planted on school property, connecting students to the greater experience that is the outdoor world.


Just as the bird ignores human maps, the Bird Town concept has flown beyond Allentown, inspiring an entire conservation network called the Lehigh Valley Bird Town Coalition. Its members include PPL, Air Products and Chemicals and The Morning Call. Established organizations such as the Wildlands Conservancy sit alongside younger ones such as the Friends of Allentown Parks to share ideas and resources and ensure this feathered promise is kept.


As Michael Wimmer, designer at Plantique Landscaping said, “Bird habitats require three items; food, shelter and water. Food can come from flowers or fruiting trees and shrubs; shelter is provided usually by larger evergreens and shade trees; water can be found in a water garden or a simple feature such as a birdbath. Our design philosophy has always been to incorporate a good balance of all these items in the complete landscape, so achieving a healthy bird habitat can be a possibility for any landscape.”

For homeowners, hardscapes such as patios and walkways can provide platforms to enjoy the show. However, we must also be careful to eliminate as many artificial hazards as possible. We can bird-proof our homes in much the same way we cover the electrical sockets for toddlers. Measures include adding visibility to glass, which birds cannot otherwise see, or keeping our masterful hunters, our cats, indoors.

One issue that is difficult to correct in a city is light pollution, effecting birds whether they are trying to sleep or navigate the night sky. We can, however, shade outdoor lighting, directing it to where it is needed (the ground), away from where it is not (the sky) which also increases the efficiency and functionality of the lights.

Remember, too, that birds have individual needs that are met via specific plants. Many of the plant varieties that grew here before the Europeans came – referred to as native plants – have been turned under or paved over, limiting the resources for sensitive bird populations. When we return the native species to our backyards, we greatly help the birds.

Places like Edge of the Woods Nursery in Orefield focus exclusively on cultivating native plants. Nursery owner Louise Schaefer explained, “Our mission has been to help people understand that the plants they choose for their landscapes have an important job to do and can satisfy the need for beauty and aesthetics while also helping our ecosystem heal and thrive.”

The little bird that sang to me in the garden had found a welcome home, its family hidden safely among the flowers. As Saffier said, “We have more work to do, and with the help and support of the coalition, we anticipate exciting things to come from Bird Town Allentown.”

Steven Saffier
Director of Audubon at Home Program
Audubon Pennsylvania
1201 Pawlings Road
Audubon, PA 19403

Victoria Bastidas
Environmental Educator
(self employed)

Louise Schaefer
Edge of the Woods Nursery
2415 Route 100
Orefield, PA 18069

Michael Wimmer
Plantique Landscaping
Schantz Rd. Allentown

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