For the Birds?

An interesting discussion has been developing regarding the City Arch River Competition: is “birding” realistic as program?  Alex Ihnen at Urban STL has criticized the MVVA proposal’s Avian Research Center as, “unlikely to draw casual tourists despite the relatively large number of birding hobbyists”, citing a number of popular birding sites already in the area.  Daron at STL / Elsewhere, emphasizing the importance of the Mississippi Flyway, argues that birding sites don’t compete with one another; “A diversity of habitats doesn’t just mean a diversity of birds, but healthier birds that can handle the long migration.”

While I wouldn’t characterize either writer’s position as extreme, this debate does illustrate one of the value judgments that will have to be made in assessing any proposal for the Gateway Arch (or Pruitt-Igoe) site: how should ecological services and human uses be prioritized?  Both can be accommodated on site, and needn’t necessarily be directly oppositional.  But on some level, decisions must be made: should all site program support the goal of attracting visitors, or is there also value in improving habitat (even if ultimately less popular)?

GRBT map of St Louis, annotated by author

STL / Elsewhere cites the Great River Birding Trail in the case for birding programming at the Gateway Arch site.  Based on this map, there are few birding sites in the St. Louis area.  I’m curious as to how these birding sites are identified: based on their popularity with human birdwatchers?  Or with birds?  I bring this up because, in my mind, it brings up the same set of issues: are sites where humans can watch birds more valuable than sites with good habitat that are inaccessible to humans?  The only birding sites GRBT identifies in St. Louis are Tower Grove Park and Forest Park.  Both are open to the public, and both are designed landscapes.  Are other types of landscapes, such as vacant lots like Pruitt-Igoe, being devalued?

Some habitat restoration has been undertaken in the Kennedy Woods at Forest Park.  At 50 acres in size, these woods are comparable with the 57 acre Pruitt-Igoe site.  But even a restoration project is designed; and native plants from a nursery can be of a different genotype than those found naturally occurring in the area.   Contrast that with the Pruitt-Igoe site, which has undergone “habitat restoration” through neglect.  Succession has created the urban forest that exists today.

At this point, I’m not prepared to claim that Pruitt-Igoe could be a better birding site than Forest Park, Tower Grove, or potential habitat restoration at the Arch.  After all, it’s not a competition: more habitat means more birds; ultimately all sites are better off.  I just wonder about the value judgments involved in determining the future of the Arch grounds, and in assessing the existing stock.

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4 Responses to For the Birds?

  1. Daron says:

    I’m not completely sure, but I think those birding sites are designated by the Audubon Society. Each chapter has a list of ‘Important Bird Areas,’ and I believe that status is only granted after a long nomination process.
    http://www.stlouisaudubon.org/birding/iba.php

    Once an area is assigned as an IBA, I believe the Audubon Society makes an effort to defend it and provide programing for it. The St. Louis Audubon Society lists Tower Grove Park and Forest Park together as a urban oasis of importance for the region.
    http://www.stlouisaudubon.org/conservation/sl-iba.php

    There shouldn’t be any conflict between the needs of birds and the needs of people. Forest Park is a good example of that.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I agree that birds’ and humans’ can both be accommodated, and Forest Park is a good example of this. But within Forest Park, there is programmatic zoning – the ball fields are oriented toward human use, but don’t provide much in the way of ecological services. The Kennedy woods are oriented toward ecological services, with human use limited to a path. At some point (perhaps not even consciously) a decision is made regarding the relative area of each. That’s true of any project on any site. The discussion surrounding the MVVA has me wondering how it will play out at the Arch.

    • Daron says:

      True, there are a few specialized areas, but ballfields aren’t dead spaces. Robins and other dirt searching birds need low cut grass. Kennedy Forest is a wonderful place for biking and walking, and I’m happy to be able to access it.

      What I was really thinking about was the wetlands area with the boardwalks and trails. I think pretty much everybody that goes through there is excited to see the egrets walking about and the ducklings chasing their moms. Common areas with grass and just a few trees, like around the history museum still have woodpeckers and all sorts of life. This is because the species of trees are really varied. The zoo especially seems to be alive with winged animals.

      Most birds don’t need a designated area, just the particular plants and foods they like. When all that’s offered in the region is ash trees and grassy fields, only a few birds will show up. Add an artifical pond and the Canadian geese will swarm. When things are varied a bit, more birds show up. As the MVVA team pointed out in their assessment of the arch grounds, keeping things as they are now, but putting in some wild undergrowth would drastically reduce the amount of money put into maintaining the park while adding to the experience colorful plants visible from the paths and way more wildlife.

      I don’t think we should think in terms of either/or, but ask serious questions about how a northern cardinal might view busch stadium and so on. Saying “this is for nature and this is for us” is like saying “this is for cars and this is for people.” That logic leads to horrible highways, dead pedestrian malls, and loads of money wasted on infrastructure designed to alienate people.

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