Soaring Success


The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park at Newfields is home to a record number of bird species thanks in large part to efforts by Newfields to reclaim the space through natural land management over the last two decades. 

Bird populations worldwide are estimated to have declined by 2.9 billion birds in the last 50 years (Cornell 2023). The primary driver of this reduction has been identified as habitat loss. Different bird species have different habitat requirements. Luckily, The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park has a wonderful variety of habitats and its proximity to three bodies of water make it an ideal location for many types of birds. However, for much of the space’s recent history, industrial land use practices led to habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity. 

The park land was once wetland which was drained for agricultural purposes until it was sold for gravel and sand mining in the 1960s. The lake was not there originallybut was created from the remnants of a gravel pit which operated until 1974, when it was filled in with water from the White River. The land surrounding the lake was left unmanaged from 1974–2004, and the space became overgrown with invasive plants.  

When The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park opened in 2010, much of the park’s vegetation consisted of Amur honeysuckle and Asian bittersweet, both invasive species. Only 29 bird species were observed in the park that year. In 2012, only 49 species were observed on eBird, an online platform which allows birders to track and report bird species observed within a geographical location. In 2019, following the installation of several test prairies but prior to the installation of the Wild Birds Unlimited Native Pollinator Meadow in 2022, 102 species were observed. So far this year, 133 species have been observed from January to August 2023, prior to fall migration.   

Why are invasive plants so detrimental to wildlife diversity? Invasive plants do not support native insect populations, which rely on indigenous plant species for food, habitat, and reproduction. Many bird species rely on insects as the base of their diet, and most require insects as a food source for reproduction. Accordingly, if the vegetative species composition (the plants) in a space changes, this can drastically imact the composition of bird species. This is what had been happening in the park, invasive plants took over, and birds had to find other homes.  

The good news is—as we compare available historic data on bird species composition in the park to data collected on the removal of invasive plants and installation of native plants within the space, we can observe a correlation between land improvements and bird species richness, including more rare species that fill specific niches.  

Our understanding of the historic bird populations in the park comes from bird surveys by members of the Amos Butler Audubon Society and through eBird. The most recent survey was conducted on June 25, 2023 by Brian Cunningham, Director of Outreach & Nature Education for Wild Birds Unlimited. This was a very hot and dry summer day, during which one would not expect to observe many bird species. Contrary to expectations, Cunningham observed 50 species in four hours, including a Yellow-Breasted Chat, which he said is typically only seen in spaces which manage specifically for this species. For contrast, he also shared with us his data from a survey of the park in October 2012, when during peak migration he only observed 27 species—that’s a nearly 50% increase in just 11 years. 


Data collected by the birding community on eBird for over a decade show that 172 bird species have been observed in the park by numerous observers. Although eBird data is not always peer reviewed, we can assess the accuracy of bird sightings based on the number of observations and number of observers of a given species. This observational data shows the influence of land management practices on the bird population within the park. We not only see a steady increase in the number of bird species throughout this period, but also an increase in the number of rare species observed in the park.  

Research into bird communities has long shown a correlation between land management and the presence of bird species. Food, shelter, water, and nesting locations are needed to attract birds to a property. Between 2012 and 2023, around 20 acres of Amur honeysuckle were removed, and 73,000 native plants were planted in the park. The Wild Birds Unlimited Native Pollinator Meadow has provided food resources for birds in the park and can be directly associated with the increase in bird observations in this space. 

Habitat management that bolsters the number of native plant species has been shown to effectively improve the number of bird species, but management practices such as light reduction, leaving standing dead trees, and protecting grassland and forest edge habitats are equally critical for nesting birds. Much of our species diversity is due to habitat richness and diversity of habitats, as can be seen in the following examples: 

  • One of the most strikingly beautiful birds in The Virginia B. Fairbanks Park Art & Nature Park is the Indigo Bunting, which can be seen frequently throughout the park. This bird is a celestial traveler, which means it uses the constellations to aid migration, and the survival of this species can be heavily impacted by light pollution. These birds breed in shrubby areas along the forest edge. 

  • The Scarlet Tanager is another vibrant bird that can be found nesting in the park. This bird gets its name from the breeding male’s bright red plumage with dark wings. These birds nest in mature woodlands and can undoubtedly be found in the park due to the section of old growth forest that was undisturbed by land use. 

  • An Indiana state endangered bird has been observed in the park several times between April and August is the Cerulean Warbler. This small bird has a unique and beautiful sound with plumage similar in color to a Blue Jay. It is only found nesting in mature woodlands, such as our old growth forest, and most often along riverbanks. 

  • The Yellow-breasted Chat observed by Brian Cunningham nests in dense, scrubby grassland areas similar to what can be found near Stratum Pier. 

  • Pileated Woodpeckers are a frequent sighting in our park, often seen nesting in large American sycamores along river edges. Red-headed Woodpeckers, a much rarer bird that can also be found nesting in the park, require dense woodlands and old growth forests. 

  • Bald Eagles, which were once endangered, and Osprey and Great Egrets, which are both on the Indiana State species of special concern list, are frequently seen fishing in the lake. 

Well managed park and wildlife spaces provide refuge for birds experiencing habitat loss, and the responsible use of chemicals and managing our natural spaces with insects and native plants in mind can help mitigate the decline of birds. A diverse bird population and the presence of bird species which fill specific niches are often considered indicators of a healthily functioning ecosystem. Newfields and The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park is proud of our habitat management practices. The impacts we have seen to our bird populations are one of the greatest indicators we have seen that our work makes a difference. 


Cornell University (2023) Nearly 3 Billion Birds Gone. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

eBird (2023) Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park

United State Department of Agriculture Forest Service (date unknown) Appendix C - Endangered, Threatened, Sensitive, and Management Indicator Species, Federally Endangered, Threatened, and Proposed Species

Image Credits: 
Bald Eagle. Photo by Frank Cone.
Cerulean Warbler. Photo by Andrew Patrick.
Great Egret. Photo by Hilary Halliwell.
Indigo Bunting. Photo by Hal Moran.
Osprey. Photo by Petr Ganaj.
Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Bryan Hanson on Unsplash.
Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo by A. G. Rosales.
Rufous Hummingbird. Photo by Chris LeBoutillier.
Scarlet Tanager. Photo by Mark Olsen on Unsplash.