These native lawns in Motown aim to enhance bird life and the welfare of neighbours

These native lawns in Motown aim to enhance bird life and the welfare of neighbours

A few years ago, Callahan Park in Detroit was indistinguishable from an abandoned patch of land, where the overgrown lawn was littered with rubbish. While the city has been in economic recovery mode since its bankruptcy in 2013, some areas have rebounded more than others, and many of the more than 300 parks look a lot like Callahan once.

Today, however, Callahan Park is covered in lush meadow, with paths winding through colorful native plants such as conifers, milkweed, and wild bergamot. “It’s a place where you can really relax,” says Princess Denise, vice president of the local community association.

With two acres planted in 2019, Callahan became the first of five gardens converted during the initial phase of Detroit Bird City, a project led by Detroit Audubon in partnership with the city. The renovations are a relief to the city’s gardening department because lawns, once established, need very little maintenance other than annual mowing. For conservationists, it’s an opportunity to create grassy habitats for degraded birds. “A two-acre patch isn’t going to save quite a bit, but it helps,” says Diane Cheklish, M.D., Detroit Audubon Board Member.

The new habitat will take time to reach its full potential, but Detroit Audubon has already recorded 98 species of birds at Callahan Park. Community members are happy to share the space with visitors like Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and Ring-necked Pheasant. “I’m not a bird watcher, but now I’m more interested in the beautiful birds that come through,” says Dennis, who volunteers to help maintain the site. “It’s a beautiful sound in the early morning.”

Princess Denis relaxes outside her home near Callahan Park. picture: Eileen Crome

Detroit is a migration hotspot, particularly in the fall when birds pass through the Detroit River Corridor, says Erin Rowan Ford, Michigan Conservation Manager. Great Audubon Lakes. “The fact that Detroit Bird City helps create some natural spaces with native plants can really help support the birds on their journey south,” she says.

The project also aims to support Detroiter. Instead of going ahead and assuming that neighbors would appreciate it, Detroit Audubon presented plans at community meetings and included public input before planting. Organizers added trails in Callahan, for example, and assured residents that Detroit Bird City would still participate. “We weren’t just going to create this project and then just disappear and let it fade — because that’s what many communities in Detroit have experienced,” says Detroit Audubon Research Coordinator, Ava Landgrave.

The parks welcome visitors with attractive features such as educational signage, benches, and small libraries. Detroit Bird City also offers free programs, including Landgraf-guided bird walks and local botanical giveaways, so residents can create their own patches of habitat—something Dennis has done on the property she purchased.

Besides observing the parks’ bird and plant communities, the City of Detroit Bird contributes to a growing body of research on how green spaces can improve people’s well-being. In a study supported by the National Cancer Institute, Michigan State University health scientist Amber Pearson tracks how neighbors’ physical and mental wellness responds to increased plant life and overflying sparrows.

It’s too soon to know the results of this research, but it’s clear that Detroit Bird City has established a model worth pursuing. City Callahan Park cites In the draft strategic plan as an example of how to convert underutilized parks into landscaped areas. Project leaders also plan to expand to other properties in the city, helping the parks department achieve its vision of 1,500 acres of wildlife habitat.

They moved closer to that goal in July when the City of Detroit Bird City planted two additional acres in Callahan and launched the next phase of the project with three new acres of prairie in Riverside Park. Restoring this native grassland is a perfect way to treat the city’s vacant lot as an opportunity for birds and humans, says Chiklish: “We’re on a major road; there’s the Detroit River—there’s a lot of stuff to give us here.”

This story appears in the Fall 2022 issue of “A Meadow Grows in Motown.” To receive our print magazine, become a member of Donate today.

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