Think Outside the Park Interview with Amy Belaire

Think Outside the Park
Interview with Amy Belaire
By Betsy Pfeil

Dr. Amy Belaire is the Natural Resources Manager & Coordinator of Education and Research at Wild Basin. She is a landscape ecologist with a focus on urban environments. Amy received her Master’s in Environmental Management from Duke University and her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she researched bird-species diversity in urban neighborhoods. You can hear Amy speak on Birds, Yards, and People at the September Meeting of Travis Audubon.

Betsy Pfeil: Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in nature?
Amy Belaire: I grew up in Rockport, Texas and counted pelicans on Aransas Bay every day on my way to elementary school.

BP: Tell us about your early experiences with birds and birding.
AB: My first job after college was with an environmental consulting company doing habitat assessments and surveys for golden-cheeked warblers here in Austin. That was my first real experience studying birds, and I loved it.

BP: What inspired you to pursue your career specialty? Were you interested in environmental conservation in general? Were you specifically interested in birds? What was your connection to urban ecology?
AB: I’ve always been interested in environmental science and conservation. After I got my master’s degree, I worked for several years at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center as the project coordinator and researcher for a project called the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). SITES is a rating system for sustainable landscapes and is based on the premise that all environments, from small designed urban landscapes to large national parks, can provide ecological benefits. It inspired me to think more broadly about what is possible in our developed landscapes, especially if we put our minds to it and think about the types of ecological functions that can still be provided in urban areas.

I also think that urban ecosystems have been ignored and overlooked, but recent research shows that these places are not “biological wastelands” at all! Peter Marra from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute gave a talk earlier this year, and he said, “Urban areas are the front lines of conservation.” I believe this too. There is so much potential to re-think the way we design and manage urban ecosystems, especially since urban areas are going to continue to expand. There is also tremendous potential to re-connect people with nature, even if it’s the “everyday nature” in their own backyards.

BP: Why do you consider birds important in an urban center such as Austin? We have plenty of theaters, music venues, and restaurants. Who has time for birds?
AB: I think that birds are an easy way for people to connect with nature—people love birds. One of the things we found in our research was that people who perceived more bird diversity around their homes were also more likely to agree that birds contribute to their physical and mental well-being. We also found that birds can inspire people to make more wildlife-friendly choices in their yard design and management. Findings like that point to the power that birds can have in cities!

I work with college students at St. Edward’s University and Wild Basin, and I think it’s fun to watch them learn how to identify birds that they see and hear every day yet haven’t really “known” before. They’ll see a Carolina Wren at Wild Basin and then later they’ll see a Carolina Wren outside their window at home and think, “Wow, the area outside my apartment is also a ‘habitat’ for birds. I hadn’t really thought about this area as being a potential habitat!” That’s transforming the way they see the environments around them, and it’s a new and exciting way of thinking about urban landscapes.

BP: How do you think our cities can improve their quality of natural spaces?
AB: Most of my work has focused on the areas outside of natural areas and looked at ways that we can design the more developed spaces to improve habitat connectivity or even expand the total area of usable habitat for some species. Conservation and restoration of natural areas are tremendously important, but there’s also the need to “think outside the park.” Managing the areas between the natural spaces can be a really important conservation strategy in cities.

BP: What are the most positive examples you’ve seen of cooperation and collaboration with respect to bird-friendly neighborhoods?
AB: One of the projects that I think is really exciting is a program called “Habitat Network” developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy. The idea is to create social networks of neighbors sharing their ideas and strategies for wildlife-friendly yards, which could lead to on-the-ground networks of richer habitat in residential areas. They’re trying to harness the power of the crowd. So far, over 20,000 yard-owners have participated and mapped over 330,000 acres of yard habitats. I love this concept, and they’ve made it so easy to participate.

BP: What changes do you hope to see in Austin and other cities like ours?
Amy: I’m very excited that over 2,000 yards in Austin are Certified Wildlife Habitats (see map here). This means that the social norms may shift over time such that habitat yards are cooler and more desirable than traditional lawn-based yards. A lot of the research on this points to the power of social norms in shifting environmental behavior. For example, if several of your neighbors have a Certified Wildlife Habitat yard, you’re more likely to start gravitating toward that type of design and finding that style of yard appealing. And you might just end up converting your own yard to a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

BP: Some of your studies revealed higher numbers of non-native bird species in neighborhoods when outdoor cats were present. What suggestions do you have for cat owners?
AB: I think that keeping cats inside is one of the easiest and most powerful things we can do to increase the bird-friendliness of our yards. A lot of the research on this suggests that cats have significant consequences for urban bird communities, especially native bird species. Cats obviously can have direct effects by preying on native birds, and they also have indirect effects that are unexpected. For example, birds will adjust nest placement or nest-defense behaviors in response to the mere presence of cats in the area, which can in turn attract other predators to the nest.

Join us at the September Travis Audubon meeting when Dr. Amy Belaire will share the presentation that she gave at the British Ornithologist Union, Urban Bird Conservation conference in April, 2016. Click here for details.