Native Bird Connections’ director Diana Granados moved to California in 1957 and attended Fresno State before settling in Martinez 35 years ago. While working with disabled adults, she volunteered at the Alexander Lindsey Museum’s wildlife rehab hospital. A decade later, in 1984, she stepped into a paid position as curator and operations manager. The museum went through a major transition on Granados’ watch: protocols for handling captive and nonreleasable wildlife were reached with Fish and Game and Fish and Wildlife, and the museum’s collection, educational arm, and outreach efforts became more professional. Granados left the museum in 1999 to form Native Bird Connections, which offers programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties for adults and children. The programs, such as “Birds of Song, Story, and Myth” and “Raptor Radar,” use nonreleasable birds as teachers. Says Granados, “We do preschool through ninety.”
I chose birds because rehabilitation centers get them in large numbers, and it’s good to use them if they can’t be released. Birds make incredible ambassadors, and I wanted to create a niche for them to do this kind of work. Six people work at Bird Connections, and three of us do the bulk of the educational programs.
Is there an overarching theme?
I believe in being personally responsible. My oldest daughter, who is 35, tells a story where she wanted me to say she was grounded so she didn’t have to do something she didn’t want to do. I told her it was her responsibility. Sometimes it’s hard. I feel like I’m surrounded in a culture where people would rather blame someone else than take responsibility.
How does that translate to birds?
I’ve been training people for a long time, and I always tell them an animal is a bridge—you’ve come to me to train you to be the person you should be. The animal allows people to see themselves. I got a tremendous compliment recently—a golden eagle we’d all known for a long time died, and a volunteer wrote a sympathy card that said, “It wasn’t what you taught me about birds, Diana, it was what you taught me about myself.” That’s what I’m trying to do. Animals give us that opportunity because they don’t have any judgments and if given an opportunity to be respected for what they are, they let you be who you are.
Amazing things can happen. These are wild birds. They are birds that have been injured. By and large most of them had some kind of a life. In a sense, they were fired from their jobs—their job was living in the wild. What can we do to give them another opportunity to learn a new job? Can they do it? Be interested in it?
I use three words: change, choice, and challenge. Those words describe life in general—it’s what life is about. These animals have the ability to find things in themselves that let them adapt to a new career, and they are very good examples for us. But we have to be respectful and responsible. Our tag line is respect, responsibility, and reverence. I’m human. It isn’t always easy for me to be those words.
Sometimes when we bring the birds to an institutional setting, those words are on the wall, and it gives me an opening. I have about an hour, and I need to gain people’s confidence and trust for one little spark to happen to make a change. It’s amazing the ability people have—they will open up around the animal.
I don’t want to be show-and-tell. I want to give hope, and I want to leave people with something they can do that would inspire them to love the natural world. It could be as simple as picking up trash. In assisted living places, they can go out and enjoy birds by feeding them. But feed them correctly—Audubon and Cornell University send me packets of information I can leave with people.
What other kinds of things can people do?
The Audubon Christmas bird count is very important because it’s how we keep track of the impact we’re having on wildlife. You can have your backyard certified as a habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. We got together with Mt. Diablo Audubon, and the entire Orinda school district was certified as a habitat. Each schoolyard put in a garden and made other improvements.
You start in your own backyard and ripple out. You can’t get too broad-based. That’s highly overwhelming, especially to children. I grew up when the Bomb was going to drop. I watched my friends go to pieces and not be able to move in their lives. But if you make it a hopeless world, it will be a hopeless world. Kids come back to visit me, and they’re vets or nurses or biologists. They feel compelled to be out there in the world helping.
Tell me about the classes.
Right now we have 18 birds. I have a nighthawk and a poorwills. They come at deep dusk and eat insects, right before the bats come out. People ask [about our birds], “Aren’t they lonely?” Many birds are not social, even those that live in flocks. Not every bird nests, and many birds are single. Some of the birds are very solitary, especially birds of prey.
Last week we did our sex education class. I talked about raccoons. It’s a matriarchal society. Males get rid of other males, and females will chase away any males they don’t have business with. A family of raccoons is actually often a lot of females. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface about the wild animals that surround us—there’s so much to learn.
We have several hawks and owls and a bald eagle and a golden eagle. I love it when people think of my kestrels as big birds. They are big birds. I have two chickens and two ducks. People think they want to be in the presence of that hawk. But when the duck is there, they google-eye with it. People feel more comfortable with the duck.
You’re mixing the boundary between the wild and the familiar.
Yes, and I want to grow value for everything in its place. These kids are getting an impression, and we’re going a baby step at a time. You don’t have to hold the animal. You can give it space and respect. Can we touch the duck? Well, do you think he wants to be touched? If I came over to you and started touching you, do you think you would like it? Are you reading the behavior correctly? Does the animal, by coming over, really want to be hugged? We can touch with our eyes and we can touch artifacts, like feathers. We have a right to be tactile, but the animal has a right not to be touched.
I’ve noticed that squirrels and raccoons seem more problematic to nesting birds than cats. Yet birders always talk about cats.
I have a chart that shows the natural kinds of problems animals face, such as predation, disease, migration, the search for food. Then there are the unnatural problems: competition and predation from introduced species, habitat loss, pesticides, environmental hazards, water pollution. If you take the things on the natural side and then add three or four on the unnatural side, it can be too much for the animal to recover from.
Some of our more unusual birds are affected more quickly. A mourning dove mates for life and reproduces year round, as opposed to a warbler, which is a migratory bird. The warbler doesn’t reproduce every year, and access to food affects its reproduction. So some of these impacts are going to make a big difference.
Dr. Luis Felipe Baptista of the California Academy of Sciences discovered that birds not only have tremendously varied song, they have dialects. He put it like this: it’s critical that birds learn a song by a certain age. If they don’t learn it, they don’t mate. At the wildlife hospital, we’d get in 3,000 birds and 2,000 could have been left where they were. I want to launch a campaign telling people to put that baby bird back up in the tree. He’ll become the brancher he was working on being when he hit the ground.
And we need to look at our own behavior. Raccoons got distemper. We inoculated them, and then they got parvo. Instead of inoculating them, we should have wept and moved on. Viruses are a population control.
I believe in being thankful for animals that provide us food. If we went back to saying grace, we would be more thankful for animals that gave their lives. There doesn’t have to be such a negative feeling.
In fact, anger is what keeps things from progressing. If you back people into a corner, you go nowhere. And while you keep fighting each other, the animal continues to be the victim. Bring that to the table. Then you can be respectful on so many levels.
Reach Native Bird Connections at 925-947-7044 or www.nativebirds.org. Other sources include www.abcbirds.org, www.wildbird.com, and www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat/. Many resources exist to attract birds to your yard, including www.avianaquatics.com. and books like The Wildlife Sanctuary Garden by Carol Buchanan.