By Joe Watts
Projects, whether they are about interpretation, design, mapping, or anything else, require attention to multiple levels of details. Moreover, they should always involve working with strategic partners. Concentrating only on one side of the details can be disastrous. Missing an opportunity to work with a partner can be damaging to the individual project and to projects in the future. The design can be great, but without buy-in from partners, you are doomed to failure.
Case in point, a recent series of posters developed for the Alabama Birding Trails project.
The first poster started straight-forwardly enough. Choose the 50 (it turned into 49, but that’s another story) birds of Alabama most commonly found here and create a poster. This had been done before. Simple, right?
Well, what really are the most common birds? How do you rank them and why? Simply based on numbers and ability to see them anywhere and you immediately begin to fill your precious space with European Starlings, House Sparrows and House Finches (all invasive species). Worse yet, you’ll certainly have to include Pigeons. And, if you’ve ever parked your car on a city street only to discover that the shade provided by the nice street tree is also a rest stop for these rats with wings, you know that including a pigeon is not the best way to endear casual bird fans to the intricacies of birdwatching!
The good news was that, with 49 species and working with partners from both birding groups in Alabama (the Alabama Ornithological Society and the Birmingham Audubon Society), we came up with a rationale for inclusion and a list of interesting bird species, not just the most common birds. The list included such common birds as American Robins and Blue Jays, but also birds important from a conservation standpoint such as Snowy Plovers and Least Terns. Robins and jays are everywhere; plovers and terns really occur only in a small part of Alabama along our coastline, but they are important for everyone to understand.
There were missed opportunities and there were birds that should have been included that were not, but mostly, the process we used to determine birds to include worked. There were a few quibbles here and there, for sure. But, the process worked because we included many of the people that might have had an issue with the poster otherwise. They had a voice in making the poster. They made it better. Everyone had, at least to a degree, ownership. So, when the time to find fault came (ie, the day after printing), the main partners were all happy with the product.
The lesson here: Inclusion. The more people you can involve in a project before completion (and, honestly, from the very beginning), the stronger the project will be. And, of course, the more bulletproof.
And the end of the story: the poster proved so popular that we received funding to develop two additional, smaller posters highlighting other birds found in Alabama. After working with those same partners, we developed a plan to include a Birds of Prey of Alabama and a Wading Birds of Alabama poster.
Since we worked so closely with partners, we were able to develop these lists quicker, and with more concrete reasoning, to explain why some birds were included and others were not. (Several people wished a rare bird for Alabama–the Saw-whet Owl–had been included. Others wondered why we included Oystercatchers and not Sandhill Cranes.) But, the research and cooperation with partners left a solid trail of evidence to explain both choices and, for the most part, offered a satisfying answer to the critics!