Even some representatives of the 15 inaugural communities recognized by Bird City Wisconsin in 2010 may not know the whole history of the organization they helped to launch more than a decade ago. So now, nearly 100 communities later, we are looking back and recalling just how this impactful organization got its start.
The idea for Bird City USA/Bird City Wisconsin originated at the third meeting of the Urban Habitat Subcommittee of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative on March 29, 2003. Several attendees could have initiated the idea. (Ron Windingstad, Bill Mueller, Sue Foot-Martin, and Karen Etter Hale are the likely suspects.) Ricky Lien, of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), chaired the subcommittee, which talked about partnering and criteria.
The idea was discussed further on Oct. 27, 2003, gaining input from Kim Sebastian, DNR Urban Forester and coordinator of Tree City USA in southeastern Wisconsin. Mueller provided “Some Criteria for Local Government Inclusion in a ‘Bird City Wisconsin’ Program.” The group talked about criteria and the need to keep administration of the program simple. Ornithologist Noel Cutright wondered if it wouldn’t be better to title the program “Bird Friendly City.” The group refined criteria for recognition at subsequent meetings and initiated contacts with several supportive organizations, while Lien developed a draft budget.
The National Audubon Society (NAS) was interested enough in the idea that in 2004 they paid to fly Lien and Etter Hale to make a half-day presentation at their science office in Pennsylvania. They were very enthused but had reservations. A status report at an Aug. 24, 2004, WBCI meeting noted that NAS says we should feel free to pursue other outlets. About the same time, the idea’s originators met with the DNR, which also was very enthused but decided not to pursue it. In short, everyone loved the idea, but no one had any money to take it on.
The idea moved to the back burner until September 2009, when the Milwaukee Audubon Society partnered with seven other Wisconsin conservation organizations to found Bird City Wisconsin. The program launched in 2009 with an $8,000 planning grant from Together Green, an alliance between NAS and Toyota. Together Green increased its support in 2010 and 2011 to $31,700 to begin the community-recognition process and create a website.
Additional initial financing came from Milwaukee Audubon ($5,000 in 2010) and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, which donated $10,000 from its Bird Protection Fund in 2012 (and continued to provide vital annual support for the program through 2019).
In October 2009, Bird City Wisconsin hired its first director, Carl Schwartz, who debuted the program and its recognition process at Milwaukee Audubon’s annual Natural Landscapes Conference in February 2010, and 15 inaugural communities were recognized in December of that year.
To grow the fledgling program’s reputation, Bird City relied on a heavy agenda of more than 100 public appearances from 2010 to 2012. Schwartz gave talks to Audubon chapters, bird clubs and natural landscaping groups and made presentations at statewide meetings of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Wildlife Society, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Prairie Enthusiasts, and Wisconsin Lakes Association.
A number of other Bird City spinoff programs have launched with varying degrees of help from Bird City Wisconsin. These programs also have varying degrees of similarity to Bird City Wisconsin: Bird City Colorado, Bird Friendly Iowa, Bird City Maryland, Bird City Minnesota, Bird City Texas, Bird Town Indiana, and Bird Town Pennsylvania.
In October 2018, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory assumed fiscal sponsorship of Bird City Wisconsin, taking over from Milwaukee Audubon, which had served as fiscal sponsor of the program since 2009. Bird City Wisconsin moved into new offices in Shorewood at the same time, vacating a space at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside.
Also in 2018, American Bird Conservancy and Environment for the Americas (sponsor of World Migratory Bird Day) began working to take the Bird City idea to the Western Hemisphere, creating Bird City Americas, which launched in 2021.
Here are some of the folks who have been involved in the statewide organization since its beginning:
- Carl Schwartz (2010–2014)
- Bryan Lenz (2014–2018)
- Charles Hagner (2018–present)
Bird City Wisconsin was led by a steering committee from 2009 to 2018, when it reorganized as a board of directors.
- Karen Etter Hale: Wisconsin Bird Conservation Partnership, Wisconsin Audubon Council (2009–present)
- Hilary Igl: Wisconsin Department of Tourism (2019–present)
- Bryan Lenz: American Bird Conservancy (2018–present, Board Chair since 2018)
- Lucas Olson: formerly Wisconsin DNR (2017–present)
- Mike Reed: former director, Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary; Wisconsin Audubon Council (2010–present)
- Carl Schwartz: Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (2014–present, Board Chair from 2014 to 2018)
- Andrew Struck: director, Ozaukee County Parks and Planning; former president, Milwaukee Audubon Society (2009–present)
Past Board Members
- Barbara Barzen: Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (2009–17)
- Marsha Cannon: Wisconsin Audubon Council (2009–10)
- Noel Cutright: We Energies, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Riveredge Bird Club (2009–13)
- Kent Hall: UW-Stevens Point (retired professor), Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold Audubon Society (2009–20)
- Stephen McCarthy: Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (Greenseams Program) (2010–20)
- Bill Mueller: Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory (2010–18)
- Christine Nuernberg: Former mayor of Mequon and member of the Ozaukee County Board of Supervisors and the Mequon-Thiensville School Board (2009–10)
- Andy Paulios: Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, Wisconsin DNR (2009–15)
- Caitlin Williamson: Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (2017–19)
Thanks to the hundreds of Bird City Wisconsin street signs hanging around the state, one of the most recognizable things about the program is its logo, and for that, Bird City Wisconsin is deeply indebted to Tom Uttech and Mary Uttech. Tom is one of the most widely admired landscape painters in America. The logo started with Tom’s watercolors and was crafted by Mary, a magazine designer, into a striking logo that masterfully captures the urban habitat that Bird City Wisconsin was founded to protect and improve. The Uttechs live near Saukville and are active members of the state’s birding and conservation community.