Despite a childhood that was far from “outdoorsy,” Susan Bonfield stumbled onto a life path with birds, all the way to World Migratory Bird Day.

Bird Town Pennsylvania was privileged this past May to chat with Dr. Susan Bonfield, the director of Environment for the Americas (EFTA). It’s a small organization (only 14 full-time staff) with an outsized impact. Partnering with sister birdy organizations worldwide, they help choose a theme for the World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) that occurs in May and October of each year. Then, in advance of each WMBD, the EFTA works with about 800 different groups across the Western Hemisphere, providing themed materials, ideas, and resources. Their efforts ensure that many, many vibrant WMBD celebrations happen across the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America, all focusing on that year’s theme. This year’s theme is “Protect Insects, Protect Birds!” since the steep decline in world insect populations creates food scarcity for birds; even species that don’t usually eat insects do require soft insect foods when they’re babies. No insects = starving, dying nestlings.

Our conversation was enlightening:

Bird Town Pennsylvania (BTP): Are Environment for the Americas and the World Migratory Bird Day primarily educational endeavors?

Susan Bonfield: World Migratory Bird Day is an awareness-raising effort; it’s the largest global event that focuses on migratory birds. The United Nations announces it each migratory season.

It’s also the spark for all our activities. We encourage our WMBD partners to have ongoing conservation actions available to the public. As for the EFTA, it’s an educational organization, and we also manage research to protect migratory hummingbirds in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

BTP: What kinds of events happen on World Migratory Bird Day?

Susan Bonfield: Typically WMBD is a “gateway” activity. It’s designed to be an intro experience for non-birders.

Events are very varied and in many types of locations, depending in part on the theme for the year. It’s especially great when WMBD gets people on a bird walk, trying binoculars, and maybe meeting an ornithologist for the first time. These types of experiences do seem very important to people. Seeing a bird through a spotting scope has a big effect on people, too.

But events at places like aquariums, libraries, museums, and schools are also very important! One thing that’s great about WMBD is that it’s such a versatile concept.

[Note from BTP: Dr. Bonfield inspired Dr. Leo Douglas of New York University to design a study assessing what Jamaican youths learned from a single-day birding field trip that included playful, age-appropriate, hands-on bird learning. The study found that the students who had that one-day experience had MARKEDLY higher bird knowledge and interest in bird conservation than a control group—even three and a half years later! The study robustly showed that single-day bird-learning activities such as the WMBD can have a deep impact—they really matter!]

BTP: Are there special ways that the WMBD is celebrated in other countries?

Susan Bonfield: Oh, yes. Events are designed by local people; Colombia and Mexico in particular have big collections of activities. Latin American groups often incorporate traditional dance and music into a WMBD event. There are so many ways that the WMBD is celebrated, yet all with one theme each year.

[Note from BTP: For an article on the bird-conservation work of the Wounaan people of Panama, including a discussion of their 2018 WMBD celebration, click here for the article with rotating pictures, or here for a downloadable copy of the article in English, or here in Spanish. The Wounaan festivities culminated in a dance competition based on the flight styles of Black Vultures.]

BTP: It must be challenging to manage a web presence and communications with so many different groups. Do you need volunteers to help with the WMBD web presence? How would a volunteer contact you about that?

Susan Bonfield: Yes, definitely we could use help. They could send me an email about their interest, at sbonfield@environmentamericas.org

BTP: On your website you list the U.S. Department of Defense among your many sponsors. Why do they sponsor you?

Susan Bonfield: They have a lot of land supporting large wildlife populations, including many migratory birds. They have biologists and staff to protect wildlife through their Partners in Flight Legacy Program.

[Note from BTP: A defense installation in Pennsylvania with great migratory birds is the Fort Indiantown Gap, a training center for the U.S. National Guard and other military organizations. A background check is required in order to enter certain portions of the grounds, but the “Second Hawk Watch” area has open accessibility. A Pennsylvania military site working to reverse the sharp decline in Northern Bobwhites is the Letterkenny Army Depot.]

BTP: How did you personally come to this work?

Susan Bonfield: I “fell” into bird work. In college I took an ornithology-mammology class and got hooked. Then I got an offer to work in Alaska researching Black-legged Kittiwakes.

BTP: So the Black-legged Kittiwake was your spark bird?

Susan Bonfield: It’s more that the research was my spark experience. I was on a remote island for over 5 months with no running water or electricity.
That really introduced me to birds and bird research! No one ever went there except birders coming to find the Bristle-thighed Curlew.

BTP: What’s the most unforgettable moment you’ve had in your work—an “oh wow!” moment that you’ll never forget?

Susan Bonfield: It wasn’t a single moment; it was that class I took late in college on the science of birds and mammals. It changed my life. I was thrilled, and the first thing I did was sign up for a summer course at a biological station (Mountain Lake in western Virginia), which in addition to being a location for the filming of “Dirty Dancing” was also truly beautiful. That place inspired me to become a biologist.

BTP: Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Bonfield! Our chat has been quite informative—on many levels. It seems like these are the big take-home lessons:

  • Each of us can make a difference in saving birds; getting involved is key. It can be really enriching and fun to connect with World Migratory Bird Day opportunities.
  • Providing people with introductory experiences of birding can set them on a path towards bird conservation, and
  • Stay open to life’s surprises, and never underestimate how thrilling nature can be.

Susan Bonfield: Yup!

Bird Town Pennsylvania suggests the following actions that can help preserve the insects that birds need to eat:

Christine M. Du Bois, Coordinator of the Lansdowne Bird Town and editor of Bird Beat

Image Credits:

Humans making the shape of a flying bird, courtesy of World Migratory Bird Day.

Coragyps atratus Mexico (Black Vulture), by Amestone1, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Colinus virginianus USFWS (Northern Bobwhite), by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, licensed under CC BY-2.0

Black-legged Kittiwake (adapted photo), by Gregory “Slobirdr Smith, licensed under CC BY-2.0

Bristle-thighed Curlew 3, by TonyCastro, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0