For the Birds
Fairfield's Nature Sanctuary Celebrates 100 Years
The Birdcraft Museum, a six-acre bird sanctuary and learning center nestled between Unquowa Road and I-95, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year with big plans for the future. But to fully appreciate where the Birdcraft is headed, it is important to know where it began.
In 1898, Fairfield resident and naturalist Mabel Osgood Wright wanted to inspire the next generation of conservationists through preservation and education. It was at this time she founded the Connecticut Audubon Society. Her next project was to establish a sanctuary, where not only would birds be protected, but where school children would be exposed to the natural history of the region. The location she selected, a ten-acre plot of land adjacent to what now is Unquowa Road, was a spot near to her heart; it was where her father, a minister, once gave his sermons on Sunday mornings.
He would stand atop a boulder, which still sits at the entrance to the Mosswood Condominiums (and is inscribed with the words “God and Our Country”), and preach to parishioners who would sit in the pasture beyond. With a plan in mind, in 1914 she reached out to her wealthy friend, Annie Burr Jennings, who donated the money to purchase this plot of land. With that, the sanctuary and bird refuge was created; the museum and “cottage” were constructed and the Connecticut Birdcraft Museum was born. “It was amazing that she accomplished so much in that time,” notes museum president Alex Brash. “Mabel was at the forefront of the conservation movement, years before John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt.”
In the 1950s, the northern portion of the property was taken by eminent domain for the construction of I-95, leaving only the lower six acres intact. Today, there is a boardwalk, a teaching pavilion, benches, and gardens designed to attract migratory birds and butterflies (planted and maintained by the Sasqua Garden Club). One of the highlights of the existing property is the sanctuary’s wooded quarter-mile long, ADA-accessible marked trail that winds around a pond. It is free and open to the public daily, dawn to dusk. There are also two buildings on the property: the cottage, which contains a visitor’s center, gift shop and a classroom, and the museum, which is currently undergoing a massive renovation.
This renovation, which began in 2011, was made possible by a gift from Lucie Bedford Warren, heir to the co-founder of Standard Oil. The much needed, multi-phase renovation began with the building’s exterior. Next, the exhibits were dismantled (and are currently being housed at the Peabody Museum in New Haven), and the interior of the building was completely gutted. The $2-million capital campaign for the next phase of the interior renovation is currently underway, with hopes for a projected completion in 2016. Plans include fun, interactive displays, rotating dioramas, and exhibits tracking the migration of Connecticut birds. “Kids will really get to see how Connecticut is connected to the rest of the hemisphere,” explains Brash.
Each December, Birdcraft hosts a beloved Holiday Tea at the Visitors Center. There is no charge for this event. Those who attend can take a tour of the center, learn more about the Audubon Society, and hear about the renovation project.
Today the Connecticut Audubon Society maintains nineteen sanctuaries around the state, but the Birdcraft was the first of its kind. In 1993 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, and to date, over 120 bird species have been identified on the grounds. “The Birdcraft Museum is a tangible monument to Mabel’s efforts,” says Brash.