Allen Williams & the School Habitat Revolution

Allen Williams has a famous backyard.

He converted his 2.5 acres in Pharr to a native landscape by planting local trees, shrubs and flowers and installing water features — all to attract birds. The birds definitely showed up. Within a year, a rare blue mockingbird appeared, an event that caused a stir in Valley birding circles. A couple of years later, a black-headed nightingale-thrush arrived, marking the first documented U.S. appearance of the bird.

More rarities showed up, and bird watchers from around the country showed up, too, sometimes getting off the plane and rushing to Williams’ property to see whichever avian attraction was there.

Now Williams has grander plans for his habitat crusade in the Valley, where 95 percent of the native habitat has been cleared away.

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As landscape wildlife habitat specialist for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District since 2013, he has been busy helping schools install native plant habitats not only as a water- and wildlife-friendly way to landscape but also as a way to incorporate nature and science for kids.

“Our whole approach is to get the kids involved from a young age to plant the plants and for the teachers to bring the kids back out and incorporate the [school lessons] into the outdoors,” he says. “They’re already having to learn about life cycles of insects, learning about the food chain, learning plant and animal adaptations. Now they’re not just recalling what they read; they’re recalling what they saw, what they heard, what they smelled, what they experienced.”

The school district has committed to installing native habitat at all its elementary schools and using the native plants and animals as a hands-on way to teach biology, botany and environmental stewardship.

“These learning habitats are reconnecting today’s children to the outdoors,” says Susana Ramirez, elementary science coordinator for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district. “They learn what supports local wildlife. They look forward to going outside.”

Williams says he was surprised how few students appreciated the unique plant and bird life of the Valley. He wants them to know anacua trees, great kiskadees and indigo snakes.

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Things are already changing. At Pharr’s Palmer Elementary School, which changed its mascot to the green jay and installed native plant gardens, Williams walks the hallways on his way to the school’s 4-acre nature park. He passes a
line of students and asks, “Who’s seen a hummingbird today?” Several students raise their hands.

One young student recognizes Williams as he walks by and says, “Hey, my dad said I could join the bird-watching club!”

Williams answers back: “Fantastic!”

Palmer science lab teacher Yanel Leos says the outdoor lessons are paying off.

“It’s a better way for the students to understand,” she says. “They come to lab, and we’re able to bring them outside. They’re not just looking at pictures of the life cycle; they’re actually able to come and see.”

Building on this success, regional school officials created the Lower Rio Grande Valley Learning Landscape Collaborative, with the Harlingen, McAllen and Donna school districts also committed to building native plant school habitats and using them for school science lessons.

The collaborative caught the eye of former first lady Laura Bush’s Texan by Nature organization, which selected the initiative for its Conservation Wrangler Program.

“This is a transformative project for the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” says Shannon Harris, program manager for Texan by Nature. “If you get school districts on board with creating schoolyard habitats, it’s a win-win situation.”

Not a bad outcome for a guy who just wanted to see some birds.