'For the Love of Birds' - Festival of Trees

26 Nov 2019 10:35 AM | Elizabeth Urban

The GEAS Education and Outreach Committee has sponsored a couple ‘mini’ holiday trees for the St Al’s Festival of Trees in recent years.  We thought it was a fun way to reach a broad audience, as some 25,000 attend this annual benefit, engage crafty folks and their families, and support a worthy community cause*.

This year, with a mix of trepidation and excitement, I proposed that we give a full-sized tree a go.  I really enjoy finding new ways to incorporate art, making, outreach, and conservation together and this certainly fits the bill.  Though, in retrospect, I may have underestimated the commitment I was making this time. 

What a journey!  I don’t think I’ve ever taken a ‘crafty’ project of this scale on before. There was a mandatory decorator training and a 12 page decorating handbook – which suggested we’d need 150+ ornaments and 12+ yards of ribbon to decorate our 7.5ft tree.  Gulp.  At least the folks who run this event are pros and very supportive of the first time decorators. If you care to keep reading, I will regale you with a dramatic recounting of the efforts and people who made this tree possible.

I immediately pulled my unwitting sister into the madness since she is my best friend, enthusiastic creator, and go to aesthetic checker.  I think at some point she stopped taking my calls for a bit as I obsessed over color scheme and themes for ornaments (Yes, I fully admit it is a silly thing to spend much brain power on, but I really wanted this tree to look good and represent the GEAS I so love). At an Education Committee meeting the fellow volunteer members brainstormed ways to incorporate the conservation themes, and initially thought a focus on window collision prevention would be a good fit.  As in previous years, we wanted to hold an event where interested members and the community at large could feel involved and learn about at-home actions we can all take to make the world a better place for birds.

During this time the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and their many partners released the startling paper that estimates North America has lost one out of four birds in less then 50 years. That is alarming and dire, but I really appreciated that they took the time to also provide tools and messaging around the fact that when we take action, we save birds.  I was particularly inspired by their ‘7 simple actions’ campaign and decided to move the GEAS tree theme to match these easy, effective things we can all do to help birds.

We hosted our first ever ‘crafting for a cause’ evening at Lost Grove Brewery (thanks for the support!) in early November.  It was hard to know how many people we should expect, so I brought just a few different things I could really use help on that wouldn’t require making a mess or dry time. Though the tasks weren’t glamorous, Gretel Care, Lisa Reed, Jennifer Cheffings, Brent Cheffings, Adra Lobdell, and Terra Falconer all did an amazing amount of work that saved me a lot of hours getting the tree together – so thanks so much to them for their help!

In the weeks leading up to the installation day (this past Sunday), I neglected many household tasks and probably fell further behind on admin responsibilities, but I managed to produce more than 100 hand painted or modified ornaments and find all the conservation-themed items we wanted to include under the tree.  Ornaments included stylized species found in Idaho, handmade ‘native’ paper flowers that are utilized by birds, birdseed filled globes, and more. For the seven actions we included:

  • ABC bird tape and window decals to ‘make windows safer’.
  • A stuffed toy cat wearing a harness and leash with some fun indoor toys to keep a positive spin on ‘keeping cats indoors’.
  •  A native plant landscaping guide and a selection of native seeds to encourage ‘using native plants’ at home.
  • To ‘avoid pesticides’ we included a highly rated weeding tool and a comical mouse in a humane trap.
  • A bag of bird-friendly coffee and an Audubon coffee mug to promote ‘drinking (delicious) shade-grown coffee’.
  • To ‘use less plastic’ we included a GEAS reusable water bottle and canvas tote bag.
  • And finally, a pair of binoculars and a bird guide to help folks ‘do citizen science’.

We also included a feeder pole system, a number of feeders, and some seed to get started.  I really hope someone will enjoy all these items and maybe some casual birders will be inspired to become more involved in conservation.  Hopefully some of the 25,000 people walking past will also learn something too!

When installation day arrived we were thrown a curve-ball.  Even though multiple people had offered to help, I figured that my sister and I could knock out our shared vision pretty quickly.  Unfortunately she had an emergency that kept her from being able to be there.  After a mini panic attack, and some self-flagellation for not accepting more help, I sent a mayday email to some friends and fellow volunteers.  Thank goodness the wonderful Dondi Black came to my rescue right away and my good friend and New Roots compatriot Megan Jones was close behind (as was her husband David).   We worked diligently, and they patiently since I didn’t have a vision board or anything prepared for them, and nearly got it completed….by the 9pm cut-off.  Whew, that took longer then expected and I would have been in real trouble had I tried to do it solo. Important safety tip – they mean it when they tell you to expect to spend 2-3 hours ‘fluffing’ your tree.  Of course we wanted to make it as beautiful as possible too.


My sister actually was a saint and came for the final hour even after a crazy stressful weekend. I am very thankful for all the folks, including my patient family, who helped make this tree a reality.  Even though the tree was great I perseverated about it all night (Did we tie on all those bird ornaments?  The topper really could be better.  Did I forget to get the organizers the batteries? Etc – If you know me well, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise).   You see, there was actually additional time on the Monday (yesterday) to continue to work, but I didn’t have any childcare and my husband was working.  They really don’t want kids down there mucking about with all the delicate ornaments, ladders, hot glue gone, etc around, so I had no plan on being able to return.  After some consideration though, I packed up my four year old and 11 month old to brave downtown with a step ladder and supplies on my shoulder.  Kate, my awesome sister, took time out of her workday to walk from her office and help with those finishing touches.  She even enlisted Kendall from her office (thanks Kendall!) to come help and I handed her a baby while fussing with hot glue and ribbon. My son, Gavin, very politely but loudly started to indicate he wished to go home…like now.  So I then left the tree in Kate’s competent hands.  Apparently Megan came to help after I’d gone too!  Megan – you are so generous with your time and energy – thank you for saving me and being such a great friend!

This has certainly been an experience.  If you happen to attend this year’s festival, I hope you will find the tree and feel that it serves as a beautiful but effective conservation outreach tool. I don’t know if I’ll suggest we do this again, but it has been an overall positive adventure that has really helped me appreciate all the people in my life and at GEAS. Thanks again to everyone who participated, offered help or creative energies, or anything else my addled brain is missing right now.

As an aside, I want to say that I fundamentally try and support people at GEAS when they pitch a passion project they are willing to take the lead on.  As a primarily volunteer organization, that’s how I think we make the biggest impact.  Since this was my idea, I said I would be the project lead and that my family would make the financial commitment to making this tree happen.  I feel it’s important for our membership to know that GEAS wasn’t committing our limited financial resources to undertake a somewhat obscure effort like this one, though some support of a few bird feeders and resources we had in storage were utilized.  I am always keen to help spread the love of birds, and this was a fun and unique way to reach new audiences.

I hope you have a happy thanksgiving and a great start to the holiday season.  Maybe I’ll get to se you at one of the upcoming great events??? Check out the GEAS calendar for a great variety of ways to take action this winter!


*The 2019 Festival of Trees is raising funds to replace and upgrade St Alphonsus mammography buses that serve rural communities. 

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