Audubon: The first 45 years in Mexico (45 years, 450 members, 450,000 pesos)

By Sheridan Sansegundo

Last week the Sociedad Audubon de Mexico threw a party to celebrate its 45th anniversary — 45 years of protecting and celebrating the flora and fauna of San Miguel and the surrounding countryside – and launch its campaign “45 Years, 450 Members, 450,000 Pesos” to raise funds for local projects that address critical environmental issues.

It all started with small boys with slingshots. When Lillian Birkenstein came to San Miguel in 1951, she became enthralled with birding in Mexico. When she discovered local children were killing birds in Parque Juarez for amusement, she visited local schools to teach children about the nature around them. In 1967, with Stirling Dickinson as her vice president, she founded the Audubon Society of Mexico, the first chapter chartered outside the United States. The remarkable Ms. Birkenstein spent 30 years traveling around Mexico, not only watching birds but learning the common Mexican names of each one. This work became the basis of Native Names of Mexican Birds, published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1981. She was later named to the Mexico Academy of Science, the only foreign woman so honored up to that time. The society organized talks and monthly outings, but also undertook community projects.

Among the first of these was the reclamation of Parque Juarez. The park had been abandoned by the city and had been in decline for decades. Under the presidency of Bob Haas in the late 1980s, Audubon hired a crew and got to work.

Environmental damage. A decade later, in San Miguel the water table was dropping, forests were being harvested for firewood, cows and goats were damaging trees, and river banks were destroyed due to erosion and livestock access. The state’s agriculture was being run increasingly by multinational agribusinesses, which rely upon heavy irrigation from our aquifer. Audubon worked with Mexican environmental organizations to promote more sustainable practices within the watershed, secured grant funds and technical assistance and initiated the Save the Rio Laja project. In the new century, the society has worked on reforestation and water conservation projects on the Presa Allende and Rio Laja and helped fund island bird-nesting areas at El Charco. It initiated a schoolyard ecology program, published bird and butterfly books and kept up a regular program of bird walks, lectures, films and eco-tours to many of Mexico’s places of outstanding natural beauty.

Grants program. Recently Audubon awarded the first grants of its new twice-yearly environmental grant program. They went to Proyecto de Educación Ambiental de San Miguel de Allende (PEASMA) which has educated over 35,000 local schoolchildren about how to care for the ecology of San Miguel through classroom and hands-on projects; to Grupo de Accion Interdisciplinaria Ambiental (GAIA) which educates women in the campo about deforestation and soil and water depletion and provides them with fuel-saving concrete eco-stoves, and to the Apiculture Collective, which combats the decline of honey bees and sets up bee-related cottage industries.

Some people think Audubon is for the birds. And so it is. But Audubon is for people too — every person in our community is directly affected by the quality of the environment and the need for abundant water, clean air and a safe food supply. Unfortunately, these elements, as well as bird, wildlife and human habitats are at risk in San Miguel. The good news is that there are people working to reverse these threats. One way to take personal action is to become an Audubon member or make a donation to the Audubon Environmental Legacy Fund, which includes membership, through or by visiting the Camino Silvestre store at Zacateros 47.

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