Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

First 'Bird Town' in Allegheny County commits to creating a bird-friendly community

A woman stands by a sign in a garden.
Kathy Knauer
The Allegheny Front
Sarah Ansell at the Swissvale Community Pollinator Garden.

Bird biodiversity in North America has taken a serious dive in recent decades. Populations have declined nearly 30% in the last 50 years, totaling 3 billion birds lost. Humans are birds’ biggest threats, and some scientists attribute diminishing bird populations to habitat destruction, pesticides and pollution, while climate change exacerbates these problems.

Across Pennsylvania, communities are joining an initiative called Bird Town, committing to help birds and the environment. Under a new partnership between Bird Town Pennsylvania and the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, the program is now coming to the western side of the state.

Bringing birds back to the ‘burgh

The first place in Allegheny County to become a Bird Town is Swissvale, a small, urban borough on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Sarah Ansell, the executive assistant for the borough, is leading the initiative.

Last spring, Swissvale created a community pollinator garden as part of their Climate Action Plan, and now it’s also Swissvale’s standout Bird Town project.

On a sunny June morning, Ansell walked through the garden and admired the new growth situated along Edgewood Avenue at a main entrance into the borough.

Plants grow in a garden.
Kathy Knauer
The Allegheny Front
The Swissvale Community Pollinator Garden.

Beneath Ansell’s feet, the ground is covered in clover. Raised beds, planted by volunteers, are filled with milkweed, wild bergamot and New England aster.

Welcome signage explains how these plants attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators – insects that also feed birds. A pair of benches in the center of the garden await visitors, and hazelnut saplings, raspberry and blueberry bushes line the perimeter.

Ansell said the space used to be a vacant stone lot but “is now an area that is lush with greenery, and a variety of different plants and flowers and all kinds of things that make it look much more inviting than it previously did.”

White and yellow flowers grow in a garden.
Kathy Knauer
The Allegheny Front
Raised beds of native plants and flowers at the Swissvale Community Pollinator Garden.

This empty lot was transformed into a budding pollinator garden with the help of Humane Action Pittsburgh, a local animal welfare organization, and a $20,000 state grant. In April, the project received a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Ansell said it’s only the beginning for Swissvale’s Bird Town program.

“We want to be a leader in environmental change,” she said. “The Bird Town project [helps us] make a greater impact towards our climate action plans.”

Moving forward as a Bird Town, Swissvale will take conservation actions that create healthy, sustainable environments for birds. This involves projects that restore habitats, renovate public spaces, and reduce harm to wildlife. Bird Town also encourages collaborations between schools, businesses, and local organizations to promote community-wide engagement in bird-friendly initiatives.

Collaboration across the Keystone state

As the executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, it’s Jim Bonner’s job to help more communities become a Bird Town.

“Right now, we’re talking actively with about a dozen different communities that are somewhere along the process of becoming certified,” he said. “There are about 50 bird towns in southeastern PA right now. I’m a competitive person, and I can’t wait to see Pittsburgh and our region here have more than that side of the state.”

A man smiles and stands next to a bird sculpture.
Rachel Handel
Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania
Jim Bonner at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve.

Bonner and ASWP provide guidance and expertise for Bird Towns, as well as mini-grants funded by Duquesne Light and the Laurel Foundation. (The Laurel Foundation also funds The Allegheny Front).

In addition to Swissvale, Bonner said he aims to foster connections between the growing number of communities joining the Bird Town effort.

“As the program goes forward, what we really would like to see is a lot of multi-community collaboration,” he said. “It’s an old line, but we say birds have no borders, and so they fly, they travel back and forth between a wide range of areas, and if you’re able to use them, you can probably unite people the same way.”

Birds indicate humans’ future well-being

Efforts like these to support birds are key to repairing ecosystems and tackling environmental issues. Bird biodiversity helps scientists measure the health of the environment because birds provide what are called ecosystem services. They fertilize, spreading nutrients with their droppings; they disperse seeds that grow to become our food, medicine, and timber; and they control insects.

Birds’ decline signals environmental degradation, a problem that impacts all animals, including humans.

“The old adage about a canary in a coal mine is as true now as it’s ever been,” Bonner said. “Things that happen to birds will probably happen to us, so if we can take care of them, we’re taking care of ourselves.”

Ansell added that Bird Town will benefit human spaces, too.

“It makes it a more appealing place to live when you have biodiversity,” she said. “Nature is something that we don’t often get a lot of in urban settings, and so having our green spaces [is] nice for a community.”

Ansell envisions more public, bird-friendly spaces for Swissvale residents. She said she feels especially proud to be the first Bird Town in the county, paving the way for other communities in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.