For the Birds—In a Good Way
by Sarah Gillig Sunu -- May 16th, 2013

Historically, birds were never my thing, unlike my aunt Heidi, who has 5 bird feeders, 3 white silkie chickens, two Eclectus parrots, one black shouldered Indian Peacock, and a partridge in a pear tree (ok, the partridge is a joke, but the rest are real! See pics below–pretty cool!).

My aunt’s parrots, Jazzy (red) and Satchmo (green)

I’ve only just started to be interested in birds myself, mostly because North Carolina has so many of them. In the places I’ve lived before, it’s mostly been robins, cardinals, sparrows, starlings, common grackles, crows, pigeons, mourning doves , and turkey vultures —none of them are particularly known for having beautiful calls (check out the grackle’s ‘song’ here). But the different bird calls and songs that I hear every morning in N.C. have piqued my interest, and now I’m actually curious about the birds I’m listening to.

This past Friday, my interest in birds got a further boost when I was included in a group of Nic School students who got to take David Yarnold, the President and CEO of the Audubon Society (and graduation speaker for the Nic School this year), out to dinner!

Lots of this!

I have to admit, I hadn’t really thought much about Audubon before—I don’t have binoculars, and as an oceans person I tend to look down at the water rather than up at the sky—but meeting David Yarnold and learning more about what he’s been doing with Audubon has my interest piqued. It is one of the biggest–and oldest–conservation organizations out there, and now I know that their conservation efforts aren’t limited to just birds (though birds clearly provide a catalyst).

I was surprised to find that David Yarnold didn’t come from a birding background—starting out at the San Jose Mercury News, he had a full career in the media (up through the ranks to Executive Editor) before joining the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and then Audubon. However, his experiences both working in the media and at EDF clearly provided him with a background valuable to Audubon, which is seeking to revitalize its image.

The San Jose Mercury News was one of the first papers to establish an online presence during his 27 years there, and while he was at EDF, Yarnold gained a reputation for being the guy to go to if you had a new idea. Innovation and communication are clearly strong points for him, and conversation at dinner ranged from the EDF’s work with Walmart to the new Audubon Flyways conservation initiative (read more on the flyways here).

Some water birds at Duke Gardens the other day.

The idea to base Audubon’s national conservation efforts along migratory paths came to Yarnold when he was touring the U.S. after becoming president of the society (check out a video about his tour here). He told us that on his trip, what he kept hearing at the Audubon centers and local chapters was the need to conserve along migratory paths—what Yarnold calls ‘super highways for birds’, a term that’s a lot more accessible for most people than phrases like “improve avian migration success through the conservation of habitats along seasonal migration paths”.

Increasing Audubon’s accessibility and bringing together its 500 local chapters is a big part of what Yarnold is currently focusing on. Yarnold is working to make Audubon a player on the social media scene through Twitter, Facebook, mobile app partnerships, social media games like “Birding the Net”, and Audubon en Español, the Audubon web page in Spanish. I have to say that, for me at least, it’s good to know that Audubon is interested in making its mission relevant to younger generations, and in having a broader conservation message and impact—it’s not all about binoculars and vests with lots of pockets.

I didn’t really know, before I started writing this, that the phrase ‘for the birds’ comes from the idea that birds eat seeds, which originally were not worth much on the market. So if something was ‘for the birds’, it meant it was a worthless idea.

Watercolor of a tern I did at Shoals.

I think that should change, for a couple of reasons. 1. Americans spent over $4 billion on bird food  in 2011 (which, for all my economic friends, provides a shadow value for the presence of birds near humans in America), and 2. Things that we do that are for the birds can have big benefits for humans too—like rehabilitating a river, or conserving a field, or preventing oil spills. I say if it’s for the birds, it’s also for humans, and we should value it!

Now I’m off to check out Audubon’s flyways, and  see what birds might have made a pitstop near me today! What’s your flyway?


Native Plants entrance

Entrance to the Native Plants section of Duke Gardens

Bird House

I love that the bird-watching station in the Native Plants section looks like a bird house!

Bird feeder

Cardinals and others

Bird feeder

Several small birds that I do not know!


Not a bird! Heard this guy from a distance and went to check it out.

Even more waterbirds in Duke Garden!

Even more waterbirds in Duke Garden!


More waterbirds in Duke Garden


Water birds in Duke Garden


A final water bird in Duke Gardens

The Ladies

My aunt's three Silkie chickens

Prince the Peacock

Full portrait of Prince the Peacock (he likes to stand on roof peaks).

Prince the Peacock

My aunt's peacock Prince

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