August 2021

At the turn of the century Gillian Martin found herself staring through a pair of binoculars watching birds, something she had never done. That simple act changed the course of her life. She began learning about and watching birds, and eleven years later she answered the Southern California Bluebird Club’s call for volunteers to put up and maintain nest boxes. She was retired, so why not?

Ms. Martin soon realized that the prevalent attitude of “hang the box and they will come” wasn’t working. While bluebirds readily use the boxes (they have become dependent on them), not all birds will come to nest boxes. Plus most of the volunteers were seniors who eventually dropped out of the program. As a result many of the boxes fell into disrepair. This left a significant gap in nesting opportunities for birds as many birds depend on the boxes as a place to build a nest and raise their young.

These observations led Ms. Martin to conclude that the practice of nest boxes was unsustainable and that another solution was needed. Her solution? Conservation of birds through the preservation of trees, and not just any trees, but dead trees. From this realization the Cavity Conservation Initiative was born and Ms. Martin began her campaign to save dead trees for birds.

Over the years her conservation efforts have included both education and advocacy efforts. She’s given presentations at schools, has worked to educate the public on the value of dead trees, and began a partnership with the tree care industry. In 2018 she met the vice president of the Western Chapter of International Society of Arboriculture (WCISA). She became a member of the organization, attends their workshops and works with them to bridge the gap between bird advocates and the tree care industry. Something she is uniquely qualified to do given her background in psychology. In other words, she’s good at listening and being heard.

As a result of this partnership, best management practices of the tree care industry now include standards for pruning that take into account nesting birds. In fact, the WCISA has begun to discuss their role in conservation.

For her part, Ms. Martin said that she now has a “more realistic and appropriate understanding” of the risk assessment that must be done when considering whether or not to save a dead tree. As a result, she no longer pushes to keep all dead trees.

As to the outlook for the future of saving dead trees for birds? It isn’t looking good. One of the big hurdles is the fear of liability, in particular by parks. Another is the recent threat of fires. CALFIRE now has strict rules about keeping dead trees at the urban-wildlife interface. And finally, damage to trees and wildlife caused by uncertified gardeners or “tree trimmers” who have zero training and no idea how to properly prune a tree much less save wildlife living in the tree.

She said the best thing to do if you think you have a sick or dying tree, or you just want a tree pruned, is to call a certified arborist. This person will discuss the tree’s health with you and will guide you in best practices for that tree.

When asked if she had had any interests in nature as a child she sort of chuckled and said she grew up on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies and at the time neither she nor her family really appreciated what they had there. She said, “ I was clueless” and had “no sensitivity to nature growing up.”

As she continued to talk about growing up her demeanor changed when she began to describe the trees back home. She became poetic. She said as a young girl she was “enraptured” with the old historic trees with the large roots that seemed to “swim above the ground”. She saw the roots as a “loving canopy” and enjoyed hiding among them. As she was describing those trees her whole face lit up with a big smile. It was as if she had gone back in time to those wonderful trees and was crawling around those roots once again. She said that those memories had faded until she was introduced to watching birds.

Over the years Gillian Martin may have forgotten those moments with those big old trees, but perhaps somehow they called to her from some deeper place. As we concluded our conversation she said that “Once the door to birds opens, your world expands. You change as a citizen. Your habits change to protect the environment. Your whole place on the planet changes. Your sense of responsibility grows. There is much more joy in your life that you wouldn’t otherwise see.” All that from a chance encounter with a pair of binoculars.