Monday, April 18, 2016

BIRDATHON: Competitive, Casual, Creative—but Forever a FUNraiser

By Keith Ashley, Resource Development Director

When competitive and casual teams come together to have fun and raise money for a cause they believe in, the results are extraordinary—but it’s worth noting that Birdathon is the Tucson Audubon FUNraiser that almost never took flight…

Board Member Ruth Russell is the obvious go-to person for Birdathon history. Not only is she one of the event’s founders, but she has also participated annually for 29 years running! And here’s the beautiful secret: in 1987, when Ruth recommended Birdathon be adopted as an official event by the Tucson Audubon Board of Directors, they all voted against it—even her husband, Steve. She decided to hold a small, unofficial Birdathon anyway just for fun. And the rest is history…

Despite his “no” vote, Steve ended up leading Ruth’s team (the Coots) and four more local teams formed to compete (the Larks, the Becards, the Eagles, and the Kingbirds). Each of the five teams had three members: two birders and one recorder. Teams only birded for six hours each, but their star-studded cast knew where to find the birds. A few of the participants were John Bates, ornithologist and now associate curator of the Chicago Field Museum; Kenn Kaufman, acclaimed birder and author of Kingbird Highway; Gale Monson, “the father of modern Arizona field ornithology”; and Steve Russell, retired University of Arizona professor and researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology. Also on board was Arnie Moorhouse, at that time the organizer of the Christmas Bird Count in Elfrida.

Ruth describes Arnie: “He, for instance, knew where to find every single Barn Owl in his territory. He counted 57 one year. Arnie would give you directions to some deep hole in the ground. You’d look in and sure enough, there was a Barn Owl roosting.” Arnie proved to be the Coots’ ace in the hole. The team won the competition by spotting 138 species in just six hours. Total Birdathon donations for the event came out to $2,190.

Debbie and Tom Callazo with Blue
There are as many different approaches to Birdathon as there are different ways to love birds. Last year’s prize-winning team, the Wrenegades, saw 163 species. (Team member Tim Helentjaris points to Sara Pike’s “Just one more bird, just one more bird!” as the key to their success). Debbie and Tom Callazo, a decidedly more casual team, took their dog Blue out with them and included both an “American Rooster” from Barrio Hollwood and a Great-Horned Owl of the plastic roof-top variety among their 45 sightings.

In her 29 years of Birdathon participation, Ruth has run the gamut of approaches—but she clearly excels at the creative Birdathon. “We once held a strictly warbler Birdathon, beginning in Mexico, and ended up with 50 species,” she explains. “Another time we counted how many hummingbirds we could band in a day.”

Ruth always kicks off the Birdathon season with a letter to her supporters informing them of the nature of the year’s Birdathon—and to let them know why it is so important to her to raise money to support the work of Tucson Audubon.

Join the 2016 Birdathon fun! Join or create a team or donate to your favorite team at

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