These Native Meadows in Motown Aim to Boost Birdlife and Neighbors’ Well-Being

Detroit Bird City breathes new life into dormant parks, creating havens for residents and avian visitors.
A small library of books and a bench line a small path through a green meadow.
A bench, a little library, and educational signs invite visitors to linger along a path through Callahan Park. Photo: Elaine Cromie

A few years ago, Detroit’s Callahan Park was indistinguishable from an abandoned lot, its overgrown turf grass strewn with litter. While the city has been in economic recovery mode since its 2013 bankruptcy, some areas have rebounded more than others, and many of its more than 300 parks look much like Callahan once did.

Today, however, Callahan Park is blanketed in a lush meadow, with pathways winding through colorful native plants like coneflower, milkweed, and wild bergamot. “It’s a place you can really relax,” says Princess Dennis, vice president of the local community association.

With two acres planted in 2019, Callahan became the first of five parks transformed through the initial phase of Detroit Bird City, a project led by Detroit Audubon in partnership with the city. The makeovers are a relief for the city’s parks department because the meadows, once established, need little upkeep beyond an annual mowing. For conservationists, they’re an opportunity to create grassland habitat for birds in decline. “A two-acre patch isn’t going to save a species, but it helps,” says Diane Cheklich, a Detroit Audubon board member.

The new habitat will take time to reach its full potential, but Detroit Audubon has already recorded 98 avian species in Callahan Park. Community members have delighted in sharing the space with visitors like Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and Ring-necked Pheasant. “I’m not a birdwatcher, but now I’m more interested in the beautiful birds that come through,” says Dennis, who volunteers to help maintain the site. “It’s a beautiful sound in the early morning.”

Princess Dennis sits on a bench whose metal frame says “welcome.” Behind her are a house and trees.
Princess Dennis relaxes outside her home near Callahan Park. Photo: Elaine Cromie

Detroit is a migration hotspot, particularly in the fall when birds funnel through the Detroit River corridor, says Erin Rowan Ford, Michigan conservation manager for Audubon Great Lakes. “The fact that Detroit Bird City is helping to create some natural spaces with native plants can really help support birds on their journey south,” she says.

The project also aims to support Detroiters. Rather than forging ahead and assuming neighbors would appreciate it, Detroit Audubon presented plans at community meetings and incorporated public input before planting. Organizers added pathways at Callahan, for example, and assured residents that Detroit Bird City would stay involved. “We weren’t just going to create this project and then disappear and let it fade away—because that is what so many communities in Detroit have experienced,” says Detroit Audubon Research Coordinator Ava Landgraf.

Ava Landgraf stands on a pathway surrounded by tall meadow plants.
Ava Landgraf at Callahan Park. Photo: Elaine Cromie

The parks welcome visitors with inviting features like educational signs, benches, and little libraries. Detroit Bird City also offers free programming, including bird walks guided by Landgraf and native plant giveaways, so residents can create their own patches of habitat—something Dennis has done on property that she purchased.

Along with monitoring bird and plant communities in the parks, Detroit Bird City is contributing to a growing body of research on how green spaces can improve people’s well-being. In a National Cancer Institute–supported study, Michigan State University health geographer Amber Pearson is tracking how neighbors’ physical and mental wellness responds to the increasing plant life and swelling birdsong.

It’s too early to know the results of that research, but it’s clear that Detroit Bird City has created a model worth following. The city cites Callahan Park in a draft strategic plan as an example of how to convert underused parks into natural areas. Project leaders also plan to expand to other city properties, helping the parks department achieve its vision for 1,500 acres of wildlife habitat.

They inched closer to that goal in July when Detroit Bird City planted two more acres at Callahan and launched the project’s next phase with three new acres of meadow at Riverside Park. Restoring these native grasslands is a perfect way to approach the city’s vacant land as an opportunity for birds and people, Cheklich says: “We’re on a major flyway; there’s the Detroit River—there are so many things we have going for us here.”

A green tractor rolls down a bare dirt slope with the top of a bridge in the background.

Derek Sederlund, property manager and volunteer for Detroit Audubon, distributes native plant seeds at Riverside Park. Photo: Elaine Cromie 

A young volunteer digs up invasive plants in a meadow of dense flowers.

Glenn Jones digs up an invasive plant during a volunteer work day at Callahan Park. Photo: Elaine Cromie

Diane Cheklich stands in a green meadow of tall flowers.

Detroit Audubon board member Diane Cheklich. Photo: Elaine Cromie

An orange, white, and black monarch butterfly perches on a purple coneflower.

A monarch butterfly sits on a purple coneflower in Callahan Park. Photo: Elaine Cromie

This story appears in the Fall 2022 issue as “A Meadow Grows in Motown.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.