If you’ve ever wanted to go on a nature hike, learning “How Birding Makes You a Better Person,” the Bluegrass Birding Festival is for you.
For the last six years, the two-day Lexington, Kentucky festival has educated thousands of guests on the hobby of bird watching and the importance of conservation—all while raising money for community organizations that protect wildlife habitats.
The festival’s founder, Dan Sweigard, learned to love bird watching from his mother, a fifth-grade teacher. “To her, education was everywhere you go. She loved taking people out for a hike to look under a rock,” laughed Sweigard. “She also had a bird feeder in the backyard. Watching the birds on the patio is always a positive, relaxing and fun activity for me.”
In 2005, Sweigard turned that hobby into a profession, opening a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise in Cincinnati, Ohio with his son. He opened a second store in Lexington, Kentucky, followed by a third in Florence, Kentucky; his fourth store opened in the fall of 2018 in Evansville, Indiana.
“Wild Birds Unlimited always supports us in putting on interesting community events,” said Sweigard. “As we began to do programs within the store, we kept finding other areas our regular customers were interested in that weren’t just bird topics. We had talks on bees, pollinators and hummingbirds, but also photography and quilting. Eventually, we thought it might be fun to do an all-day event.”
Sweigard approached Lexington’s local Parks and Recreation office and was immediately met with enthusiasm. They helped recruit a few volunteers from the office and from the Audobon Society and decided to charge vendors just enough to cover costs.
“The whole idea was to raise awareness about birding and to get the Wild Birds Unlimited name out there more. We wanted people to get out to our city parks, where the birding is great. And we wanted to try to raise money for a charity at each event so we could give back to these parks,” explained Sweigard.
The annual Bluegrass Birding Festival is free to the public and features artisans, educational booths, guided bird walks, keynote speakers and more. At the 2019 festival, around 15 local vendors sold wares like crafts and honey, while around six local environmental groups set up booths and educated the public on environmental topics like reforestation, the parks system and more.
“We specifically invite environmental groups that talk about planting trees and focusing on native plants,” said Sweigard. “It gives them a chance to get in front of hundreds of people each year.”
The festival offers bird walks for adults and children every two to three hours, guided by volunteers from the Audobon Society and guest speakers. “We’ll have a nice easy walking trail through a park with a natural spring,” explained Sweigard. “We’ll also do one walk offsite at another park early in the morning before we start. We’ve come up with some new and exciting ideas too, like birding by canoe on the lake.”
Past guest speakers have included Greg Miller, upon whom Jack Black’s character in the birding movie “The Big Year” was based, as well as Stan Tekiela, renowned photographer, naturalist and author of hundreds of popular bird field guides. The festival also features birds of prey, falcon and reptile shows so that guests can get up-close and personal with some rarer animals.
The festival also raffles off in-kind donations from all over the city, giving the proceeds to a different Lexington-area charity every year. “We have donated to the McConnell Springs Park for bird habitat improvement; Raven Run, another park, for building bird blinds; the AmeriCorps, to do environmental education programs; and the local Audobon Society,” said Sweigard. “In the last six years, we’ve raised more than $5,000.”
Going into its seventh year, the Bluegrass Birding Festival has firmly found its footing, bringing in between 700 to 1,000 guests for the weekend and adequate sponsors, including Vortex Optix, a binocular supplier, to fully cover the costs of the growing festival and keep it free for the public.
While serious birders certainly join in the festivities with a sense of community, the vast majority of attendees are families. “People are encouraged to come out and enjoy the day, go on bird walks and look for cardinals and warblers,” said Sweigard. “We also attract older people looking for something to do. Parents enjoy getting their child away from video games—that’s something we hear a lot.”
After all, as land is developed for growing communities, the need for education regarding deforestation and protecting bird habitats becomes even greater. “The health of the bird population really reflects the health of the environment as a whole. Protecting habitats will keep a balance in nature, from food sources to air quality,” said Sweigard.
One big goal of the festival is to reach children with environmental education, including crafts centered around birding and environmentalism. This was a given for Sweigard, as he and Wild Birds Unlimited also take this initiative into communities throughout the year. “We do a lot of programs within the schools—we’ll bring in birds of prey, and I’ll do bird talks free of charge year-round,” said Sweigard. “Last year, we did 35 private talks.”
Sweigard makes it a point to pick the brains of other Wild Birds Unlimited franchisees and the initiatives they’ve created in their own communities. Last year’s Bluegrass Birding Festival utilized a bit of digital marketing to beef up attendance and moved into a larger building while improving accessibility. “We go to the Wild Birds Unlimited convention each year, and we talk to people who do events around their stores. There are hundreds of events going on in any given year,” he said. “We discuss what they did, how they pulled it off, and we apply those lessons to make our festival a little better the next year.”
Truly, the Bluegrass Birding Festival and Sweigard’s Wild Birds Unlimited stores are inextricably linked. “The Lexington store has grown dramatically. It’s more than doubled in sales since I purchased it,” said Sweigard. “The things we’re doing in the community are a big part of that.”
In 2020, Sweigard said he would be looking for some “unusual booths” in order to get attendance past the 1,000 threshold. “We’re going to continue making it better,” said Sweigard. “If the weather is good, it’s just a wonderful day with a lot of nice people to talk to and show a good time.”