'Our Birds': Migratory Journeys Converge In Baltimore Gardens

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Members of the Bird Ambassadors program painted and planted a broken canoe at a Baltimore charter school in November. The canoe was filled with species native to Maryland, providing food and habitat for local birds.
Susie Creamer/Courtesy of Patterson Park Audubon Center
Members of the Bird Ambassadors program painted and planted a broken canoe at a Baltimore charter school in November. The canoe was filled with species native to Maryland, providing food and habitat for local birds.

A couple of times a month, a group of migrant women and their children gather to plant shrubs and flowers in Baltimore's expansive Patterson Park.

The gardens feed and shelter migratory birds as part of the Patterson Park Audubon Center's Bird Ambassadors program.

Neotropical birds like the black-throated blue warbler and the Baltimore oriole migrate from the East Coast down to places like Mexico and Central America for the winter, says Susie Creamer, director of urban education and conservation at the center.

"If you think about a bird flying above, up the East Coast, city after city, seeing a big chunk of green right here is a great spot to stop, rest and refuel," she says.

The women tending the park's gardens come from countries like Mexico and El Salvador. To them, the birds' journeys look a lot like their own.

It was that connection that first gave Creamer the idea for the program.

She worried at first that pairing the migrant women with migrant birds was too on the nose. But there was a real connection. The orioles, swifts and warblers aren't just the same species the women saw back in their home countries, but the very same birds.

"The same individuals are traveling thousands of miles twice a year. And because many of [the women] have traveled that distance, they know exactly how far that is," Creamer says. "And so, when I first mentioned it to them, it was literally an audible, 'Oh. The same individual birds!' and there was this sense of like, 'Oh, say hi to Grandma for me,' you know, Saludos a Mexico."

While volunteering in Patterson Park, Alexandra Gonzales recognized some of the birds from her former home in Mexico. So did her husband.

"He used to grill them. My husband joked that we should grab one and grill it, but I said no — they are visiting and migrating," Gonzales says. "When I see them here, it reminds me of my garden back home in Mexico."

Delfina Coto is also a part of the program. She migrated from El Salvador to Baltimore.

"It cultivates the roots that we bring from our countries," Coto says. "The birds migrate from the north to the south — to the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico. They migrate just like us. We came here from other countries. That's what we have in common with our birds."

The project has now spread beyond Patterson Park. The Bird Ambassadors have added plants and shrubs to schools and dozens of row houses nearby.

At one school, an abandoned canoe has a new life as a giant planter.

"The birds are now arriving to eat here [at the canoe]," Coto says. "Before we'd just feed them bread, but now it's the plants that feed them, and my neighbors congratulate me because all of us now have shrubs and plants in front of our homes."

National Audubon Society leaders say the Patterson Park project is now a model — a way to enlist immigrants in the effort to protect migrant bird populations.

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