When we pulled into a highway rest stop and stepped from the car on a recent drive along Interstate 95, we were surprised to be greeted by a full-fledged choir of birdsongs. We instantly looked up to find the source of the symphony: The trees were alive with sparrows, robins, finches and blue jays.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what brought the birds out. The trees were towering old-growth oaks spared for decades because of their locations. And just off the parking lot, a small pond offered a water supply complete with plenty of insects and a native marsh.
The healthy community of birds just a few feet off one of the country’s busiest highways may be a surprise to most of us, but it’s not to Sadie Walters. She’s launched a project around this very idea that’s finally starting to take root after three years of planning.
And she’s come up with a catchy name: “Pitstop for the birds.’’
One of the most compelling notions we heard in researching our new book on bird conservation is the need for people and birds to coexist. The habitat we both rely on increasingly overlaps as the country has developed. There are plenty of ways that coexistence is possible in yards, farms, ranches, suburbs and cities.
Sadie Walter’s concept is simple and profound. She thinks that the nation’s nearly endless supply of rest stops and now electric charging stations may be the perfect raw material for a network of bird sanctuaries. “We’ve lost so many birds to habitat loss,’’ she says. “If we can create habitat this way, they will come.’’
“She said, well, it’s like a pitstop for birds. Once she put a name on it, it really helped me to drive forward.’’
Walters, a landscape designer, bird lover and young mother of two small girls who lives in Raleigh, N.C., has singled-handedly pushed her campaign to convince the government agencies and companies that oversee these stopovers to give her concept a try.
She’s designed the blueprints for how this would work and started raising the funds. She’s in discussions with a number of agencies that she hopes will agree to a pilot project to demonstrate how this would work.
Walters’ version of this idea leans hard on the changes coming to transportation.
With the spread of electric cars, thousands of charging stations are popping up all along the nation’s roadways. These are spots where people will spend time waiting for batteries to recharge. “So we’d target people who are charging their cars,’’ she says. “These are people who suddenly have 20 minutes to spare.’’
It wouldn’t take all that much to prepare these locations as sanctuaries for birds – and people. Many of the ingredients are already in place. Some of the locations would need to increase the number of native plants that birds rely on, and they would want to avoid the pesticides that are harmful to birds.
The idea came to Walters while she was working in Raleigh, N.C. on landscape plans for various commercial projects. She grew up fascinated with the restorative power of native plants – the way they serve insects, birds and other wildlife by providing the food and shelter the species require.
She realized she could help make the landscapes more suitable for birds by choosing the right plants, as well as providing the water and shelter that’s good for both people and birds. Then one day she was talking to her mother about her idea, and her mom threw out what became the slogan.
“She said, well, it’s like a pitstop for birds,’’ remembers Walters. “Once she put a name on it, it really helped me to drive forward.’’
The idea is still just on the drawing boards. But part of its appeal is how quickly it could spread across existing rest stops, charging stations and parking lots to put up habitat that could provide the help birds need.
“The potential is how fast these could be built,’’ she says. “We could do this over and over to get to the place that help bird populations. They need fast action. This could be a moment to push this as fast as this needs to go into place for birds.’’