Op-Ed: Celebrating Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve


My wife Joan and I have lived in this extraordinary town of New Canaan for 50 years. I am, like my father before me, a dedicated birder. I guess you could say I was born a birder, since my very earliest memory was my dad entering the bedroom I shared with my older brother, whispering in my ear at 5:15 a.m. on a lovely spring morning saying, “Come on Philly, wake up, the day’s a wasting, and you and I are going birding.” Off we would go, me perched high up on his shoulders, into the woods that surrounded our neighborhood. 

At the Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve. Photo courtesy of Phil Ives

The instructions were always the same and quite simple—no whining, we are going to have fun today, no noise, just look and listen as I point out all the magnificent birds of the forest. All the songbirds and yes, their predators too, the hawks and owls and other birds of prey. He would suddenly stop—pull on my right leg and and whisper, “Listen up: that’s a Rose Breasted Grosbeak and over there is a Veery.” Then a pull on the left leg as he excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, there’s a Wood Thrush and look at that Pileated Woodpecker!”

From these earliest experiences you can see that I became hooked on birding. I can honestly say, with the exception of my family, nothing has given me more enjoyment in my lifetime then observing and listening to our birdlife. But I am greatly concerned that the younger generations that follow will never experience my joy.

During a New Canaan Land Trust walk. Photo courtesy of Phil Ives

We have built the finest athletic fields in the nation and spend countless hours training youth in games their bodies will be unable to play when they are my age. Our town fathers of many years ago did not intend for that to happen. In fact, did you know in 1916 a dedicated group of New Canaan naturalists were so appalled by the wholesale slaughter of migratory songbirds for their brightly colored feathers to be used as decoration in women’s hats that they formed the New Canaan Bird Protective Society and shortly thereafter established one of the oldest private songbird sanctuaries in the nation—today known as the 17-acre “Helen & Alice Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve,” adjoining Mead Park and the railroad tracks.

Bristow Bird Sanctuary

I was totally unaware that Bristow Sanctuary, truly one of New Canaan’s hidden treasures, played such an important role in the development of the North American Bird Movement more than 100 years ago. The Bird Protective Society eventually grew to more than 350 active members and the Preserve became so popular that in 1930 a warden was employed for more than 35 years to supervise the grounds, install fencing, maintain bird habitat, layout trails and educate visitors. There was even a Sanctuary House that served as a headquarters and meeting space for a local Boy Scouts troop. In time the Society managed an annual Christmas Bird count, awarded scholarships to local teachers to attend Audubon camps, maintained bird feeders, and counted thousands of visitors each year.

Bristow Bird Sanctuary.

Today, Bristow is a shadow of its former self. Each year, every spring, Bristow still attracts hundreds of various birds as they battle their way north on their annual migration—many dropping down for the food, water and rest the sanctuary provides. Some stay for the season, nesting and enjoying the native habitat. After touring the grounds, Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Connecticut Audubon wrote” “This is a special site deserving increased protection and stewardship.” Comins spoke of an earlier time when more than 100 different birds were recorded in a bird count and observed that one can imagine the signifiant potential the sanctuary has today as a protected stronghold for common and threatened birds.

As a senior citizen who has had exposure to our towns parks and Land Trust preserves I can only hope that the current trend away from birding and the Bristow Preserve by parents and their children is temporary, and that the extraordinary bird and wildlife they contain will again become an attraction to the young and old of New Canaan.

8 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Celebrating Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve

  1. How difficult would it be to create a marketing plan/fund raising campaign to bring meaningful awareness/capital to restore and maintain the sanctuary? We all know there is plenty of money in the community.

  2. Mr. Ives, thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences growing up in New Canaan and learning about birds at the Bristow Bird Sanctuary! I had no idea that New Canaan had one of the earlier groups dedicated to ending the fashion of adding bird plumage (and actual stuffed birds!) to women’s hats! I have to admit, we’ve lived her 20 years and it was only 3 years ago that my teenage daughters and I discovered Bristow (and later bought birding books and binoculars to try to learn on our own). How terrific it would be to wake our kids up at 5:15am and head for a learning and observing experience at Bristow! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for your op-ed. In 2015 the Town Council debated whether or not Bristow Bird Sanctuary was a “park”. (It’s not). I discovered that regular maintenance is limited to the area near the front entrance and several projects by volunteers like the Garden Club and Boy Scouts.
    In 1934 the New Canaan Bird Protective Society gave 16.83 acres of land to the Town of New Canaan with the following expressed covenants and conditions:
    FIRST: that the land so deeded shall be forever maintained as a Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve, and used for no other purpose whatsoever,
    SECOND: that no part of it shall ever be sold.

    Alas, this is one “gift” that the Town accepted but has not maintained.

  4. My grandfather, Stephen Benjamin Hoyt, was a member of the New Canaan Bird Protective Society and played a pivotal role in fund raising for the purchase of the Sanctuary. I went with him there often as a child and loved walking the paths throughout. I well remember the warden, a Mr. Barstow I believe his name was, who kept the Sanctuary in fine shape. Following my grandmother’s death, my grandfather had a memorial bench placed in the Sanctuary; it is there yet. I would gratefully donate time, effort and funds to see this gem restored to it’s former self.

  5. I was born in 1940 grew up and went through school in New Canaan. Spent many wonderful outings at The Bird Sanctuary. I believe the caretakers name was Howard Bartow . I left New Canaan in 1974 but am enjoying reliving memories through The New Canaanite.

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