Community Members Learn about Local Wildlife through Virtual Event

Kyle Knox

Gila River Indian News


On Feb 13, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held their 22nd Annual Winter Bird Count, but virtually for the first time due to COVID-19 safety protocols. Rather than postpone or cancel the event, Community members were treated to a prerecorded video and live presentation highlighting the ecological and cultural significance of the birds and wildlife throughout the Community. 


In total, 35 people logged in for the bird count; 25 were members of the Community, because of the possibility of families or multiple people viewing on one device, it’s sometimes hard to quantify how many were really in attendance. 

The annual event typically draws numerous families for a day of bird watching at various locations to locate and identify multiple bird species. Tison Gill, DEQ Environmental Education & Outreach Specialist, said, “We had to come up with ways, that we can still present the data to our Community. Willard Antone, DEQ Director, thought a video would be a great way to showcase our bird sight areas and still deliver the data we collected.” Their solution was to produce the video in addition to the cultural presentations. 


Antone began the virtual bird count, by welcoming the participants.  He acknowledged the DEQ staff along with GRIC council members and leadership in attendance. Jr. Miss Gila River Sineca Jackson, also provided the opening prayer, along with a few remarks about the event. 


Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis provided the opening remarks for this unique occasion. Gov. Lewis said, “Even or especially during a pandemic, we continue this good work documenting the bird count and sharing the data.” Gov. Lewis also acknowledged many past and present DEQ staff, for the development and maintenance of the Community’s riparian locations where birds often frequent, such as the Pee-Posh wetlands and Managed Aquifer Recharge Site 5 Interpretive Trail. 


In attendance was Lt. Gov. Monica Antone. She reflected on her past bird count experiences and its cultural connections. Antone said, “Most importantly for me, is to be grateful for the land that [we] have, the beauty and how rich and blessed we are to have this desert nature. The winter bird count has become a family tradition for us,” said Antone. She added, “We always knew it would come in December, and we would be outdoors with in person with groups of families, however this year for our safety, it was held virtually. We will miss the gatherings as the bird count made me aware of how many different types of birds fly through the Community. In the past Mr. Robert Johnson would share the bird names in O’otham each species of bird. I enjoyed the virtual presentation.” DEQ’s video highlighted data from their bird counts across GRIC’s landbase. The video showcased the data collection process, and all played vital roles in documenting the bird count and diversity throughout GRIC.  The lead on the video survey was Woodrow Crumbo, DEQ Wildlife Program Manager, and David L. Pearson, ASU Professor, School of Life Sciences. 


Gill provided data on the the number of species at the different sites in GRIC, the total birds counted at that site, and most frequently observed species found in a given area. For example, at the MAR 5 Interpretive Trail, DEQ identified 48 species, counted 82,899 birds, and identified the Red-Winged Blackbird and Yellow-Headed Blackbirds as the most abundant species at the site. 


Following the data presentation was a cultural presentation from Robert Johnson, Huhugam Heritage Center Language Specialist. Johnson provided a cultural perspective on prominent birds in the Community. He also provided the O’otham name for each bird and its characteristics.  To conclude the cultural portion, was a live presentation of O’otham songs performed by Antonio “Go:hk” Davis of District 5. 


After the event, Gill stated, “Reading over the surveys after the event, the video was the part of the event attendees liked the most.” DEQ also has plans to host a Winter Bird Count presentation specifically for Community elders. Additionally, DEQ is also considering the possibility of hosting more Winter Bird Count presentations to each of the districts.