What organization are you affiliated with?

WindStar Wildlife Institute.

What does it do?

WindStar Wildlife Institute is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit conservation organization that works to stem the loss of native plants, wildlife, and wildlife habitat by effectively teaching wildlife-habitat improvement practices through proven methods such as “neighbor helping neighbor” and “education through demonstration.” In short, we help people establish or improve the wildlife habitat on their property through environmental education programs and publications.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

What’s your job title?

Founder and President.

What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

Envision, research, create, write, and edit our award-winning “WindStar Wildlife Garden Weekly” e-magazine; photograph wildlife (including feeder birds at our 23 feeders, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and butterflies) through my office window and on WindStar’s four-acre demonstration wildlife habitat; plan and write the curriculum for our new Master Wildlife Habitat Naturalist e-Learning certification program; create new areas in our four-acre demonstration wildlife habitat; plan new publications in our 37-pamphlet series entitled “Tips for Improving Your Wildlife Habitat”; evaluate and fine-tune our Certified Wildlife Habitat Naturalist e-Learning program; create the next presentation for delivery at an upcoming national conference; and pull my hair out because of computer problems.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

How many emails are currently in your inbox?


With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job? What types of people? What other organizations or government agencies?

The wildlife in our demonstration wildlife habitat. People participating in our environmental education programs. Individuals seeking information, wanting help in attracting more wildlife to their properties and solving habitat problems. People inquiring about our environmental education programs. Magazine, newspaper, and cable editors wanting interviews for features or resource information. Wild-bird store owners wanting information on our certification programs — especially wanting to find out how they can become Certified Wildlife Habitat Naturalists and tell their customers how they can certify their habitats through WindStar’s American Wildlife Habitat Registry Program.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

The bureaucracy in all government agencies — state, federal, and local.

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

Some individuals in these same government agencies.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Carroll, Iowa, and grew up on a small farm near Coon Rapids. After getting my BA from Drake University, I worked as a photojournalist and editor at The Des Moines Register, wire services, and other Midwestern publications before moving to the Washington, D.C., area in 1972. I now live with my wife, Georgia, in an earth-sheltered, passive solar home near Myersville, Md., which was once featured on the cover of Popular Mechanics.

What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?

Attending the Coverts Program workshop sponsored by Maryland Cooperative Extension and the Ruffed Grouse Society. I learned about forest and wildlife habitat management under the direction of Jonathan Kays, regional natural resource specialist. After participating in this program for a year, I founded WindStar Wildlife Institute.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

While working as a photographer for the Associated Press, one of my eyeglass lenses fell out while I was running through a muddy farm field to reach the scene of an airliner crash in Iowa and the lens was run over by a state police car. It was extremely difficult to take photographs with one eye closed, and after a while, everything became blurry.

What’s on your desk right now?

A pile of volunteer applications that need to be sorted, resource material for the next issue of “WindStar Wildlife Garden Weekly” e-magazine, a dozen resource books for planning this spring’s projects in our demonstration wildlife habitat, a copy of Birding Business magazine, and plans for constructing an outdoor workshop shelter.

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

The Bush administration’s wholesale rollback of environmental regulations and safeguards that took decades to enact. I spend hours every day scanning and reading magazines, newspapers, wire service reports, websites, email newsletters (such as Daily Grist), and listservs. If people only knew the magnitude of environmental rollbacks and destruction of wildlife habitat being done in the name of “energy” and political payoffs, they would be appalled.

Who is your environmental hero?

My grandmother, Maud J. Cretsinger, who lived in a log cabin near Coon Rapids, Iowa, was a naturalist before the word was coined. She taught me about the wonderful world of Mother Nature, including gathering hickory nuts and black walnuts in the fall, picking mushrooms in the spring, identifying woodland wildflowers and trees, providing for birds and small animals in the winter. She also taught me to be quiet and observe, and she gave me an appreciation for books and poems dealing with nature.

Who is your No. 1 environmental villain/nemesis?

George Bush/Dick Cheney.

What’s your environmental vice?

Not recycling because there is no pickup program in my county.

How do you get around?

Ford Ranger pickup and John Deere Gater 6×4 (usually with Burt and Rosie, our Norfolk Terriers).

What are you reading these days?

Private Lives of Garden Birds by Calvin Simonds, Adventures With a Texas Naturalist by Roy Bedichek, Living on the Wind by Scott Weidensaul, Animal Talk by Tim Friend, The Janson Directive by Robert Ludlum, and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

What’s your favorite meal?

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, mixed green salad, chocolate cake, rolls, milk.

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

Yes. I read three daily papers — USA Today, Frederick News-Post, and Hagerstown Morning Herald. I scan Environmental News Service, ENN, Daily Grist, Society of Environmental Journalists, and Garden Writers Association daily email newsletters. I receive about a dozen other email newsletters and subscribe to about two dozen magazines. I watch CNN and local Washington network television stations.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

I’d rather be with Mother Nature’s critters than people.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

WindStar Wildlife Institute’s four-acre demonstration wildlife habitat.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

I would transform all the “lawns” in this country to beautiful natural gardens with ponds and native plants.

When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?


Do you compost?


Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?

Anyone who can beat Bush/Cheney. It looks like Kerry has a chance.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

Yes, I’m an environmentalist because I care about our natural world and about preserving it. I recently read a definition of environmentalist on an Internet site that appealed to me: “A freethinker and cares about the health of our planet. Usually an intellectual and almost always a nice person. Open-minded and caring about others as well. Often they volunteer to make the world a better place. They believe in protecting our natural beauty for our future generations. Environmentalists are a gift from God!”

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?

Some groups resorting to violence, radical viewpoints, and destruction of property.

What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?

The “all or nothing” approach. There are two sides to every environmental situation.

What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?

One word — communication. More than 66 million Americans feed, watch, and photograph wildlife and they spend about $40 billion annually on these activities. We need to reach more of these people and not with radical viewpoints or we will lose them. But we can educate them. And the more they learn about the natural world, the more convinced they will be that it is worth the effort to save and protect it.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

Buddy Holly then, George Strait now.

What’s your favorite TV show?

It was West Wing until recently. Now it’s CSI.

Mac or PC?

Both. I use one monitor and keyboard with computer selector switch. But my first love is the Mac.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Send a donation to WindStar Wildlife Institute so we can create a much wanted and needed national e-learning youth program that would educate kids on the need to protect wildlife and establish/enhance wildlife habitat.

Thomas Patrick, president and founder of WindStar Wildlife Institute.

I am a teacher of math and science to students with learning disabilities in a large public high school. I also cosponsor the Newark High School Nature Society with a biology teacher and neighbor of mine. It’s easy to engage our high-achieving students, particularly from the Advanced Placement environmental science class, in conservation projects such as recycling and river cleanup, but how can we involve more of the student population who tend to come from less-affluent homes? I believe strongly that conservation of the Earth and its resources should be the goal for all of us.     — Linda M. Stanton, Newark, Del.

Did you know that 66 million Americans feed, watch, and photograph wildlife annually? I would get kids interested in these activities. You can have elements of a wildlife habitat even if you only have an apartment balcony or patio. Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology has a number of interesting programs where kids can take part. Other conservation organizations also have youth programs. As soon as we raise the funds, WindStar Wildlife Institute will create an e-Learning program for youth, including home-schooled kids.

I know (and I’m still learning more about) how to encourage the birds and critters I want to visit — I’ve got several beautiful species coming over. But how do I, at the same time, discourage the unwelcome starlings and grackles who flock down, chase away everyone else, and gobble up all the food, all the while making it sound like my yard has been invaded by squeaky gates?     — Karen Johnson, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

I know this can be frustrating. My suggestion would be to spread out your feeders. The unwelcome birds will continue to visit but your other birds then have a fighting chance to eat.

We have moved into a place with a backyard and a front yard. Right now we have one big tree (I don’t know its name), one willow, and lots of grass in the backyard. In the front, there is an area with grass, pebbles, and one fairly big tree. I want to keep the trees, remove the grass, and make the yards friendly to birds, butterflies, etc., and also make sure that I don’t have to spend a lot of time on maintenance (I have two very young kids). I am at a loss as to how to proceed. Your input would be very helpful.     — Neeraja Shankar, Pleasanton, Calif.

If you send me your postal address, I’ll mail you one of the 37 pamphlets in our “Tips for Improving Your Wildlife Habitat” series, entitled “Landscaping Your Property for Wildlife.” This will provide you with helpful information that you can apply to your property. You can email me with your address at wildlife@windstar.org.

Is there anyone in California doing anything close to what you are doing? How do you go about changing your backyard? Our soil out here is clay.     — Robert Brebner, Ventura, Calif.

Our programs are national so they would apply to your backyard in California. We have individuals from California who are Certified Wildlife Habitat Naturalists and families who certified their properties as a “Wildlife Habitat” in our American Wildlife Habitat Registry. Go to the WindStar website for help in enhancing the wildlife habitat on your property.

For several years I’ve landscaped my church property, adding both native and exotic plants to demonstrate the beautiful diversity of creation. Some plants are particularly beneficial to wildlife. Xeriscape techniques are used whenever possible, as the property is rather large. Although my efforts are appreciated, it seems many expect more of a suburban-landscaped look. They want to “weed and feed” the lawn with chemicals and rake out mulched leaves used to retain moisture in border areas. It’s an uphill battle in what should be a common effort. Do you have any practical suggestions on how to get folks to understand that commercial landscaping is generally not helpful to our environment?

If I may ask a second question, I’ve heard several mainstream church leaders talk about our responsibility to take care of the Earth, yet I see so many houses of worship obsessed with green lawns but nary a spot for a bird to nest. Has your organization had any communication with any major church denominations that are sending the message to their congregations to put their money where their mouths are? If church leaders would take environmental concerns to their members at a grassroots level, their members just might listen. So many houses of worship are in a location and position to set examples in their communities. Any suggestions you may have would be appreciated. Perhaps church-goers who see this question might even spread the word.     — Alfred Thomson, Levittown, N.Y.

Author Cindy Crosby walks and meditates almost daily at the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. She collected her essays about nature and spirituality into a book called Waiting for Morning. She considers nature “an exterior landscape that influences our interior landscapes” — our emotions, our moods, our most deeply held values and beliefs. “The first account in the Bible is that of God creating a beautiful garden,” she says. “I think of our physical world as a divine notebook. God has jotted down all kinds of beautiful things about faith through this journal of the outdoors that help us understand this crazy life we are born to.”

If you or others send me your email addresses, I’ll send you a terrific article by Jean Pascual titled “Faith and the Ecosystem.” She says, “If you imagine people of faith providing shelter for the poor, with a vision encompassing wildlife as well as human beings, then you begin to understand the impact of a relatively new trend in ‘ecospirituality.'” In a recent issue of “WindStar Wildlife Garden Weekly e-Magazine,” I related again the comments the Creator might have had with St. Francis about lawns. This would be a good article to share with your church members.

I live in Montana, in a city with about 35,000 people, and recently there have been many meetings held with various agencies and officials regarding problems with city-dwelling deer and other wildlife, and what should be done about it. Many people complain that the critters have to go — that they eat the foliage and are dangerous to drivers (of course, this is when they are speeding through town in their SUVs, talking on their cell phones, fiddling with their 2.4 children, you get the picture).

I, on the other hand, love to see the animals and feel we can all live together happily. We choose to live in Montana, build in the mountains or on the edge of wilderness areas, and basically continuously take away habitat from these creatures, and these people are shocked when the animals have nowhere else to go but into town? Granted, the deer in my front yard are so used to people I can practically hand-feed them, but I feel some compromise can be made so we can all live in harmony. Do you have any suggestions? I’m worried they are going to have a city-wide “hunt,” and I’ll find a wounded or dead deer lying next to my squirrel feeder for me to deal with. Any advice would be appreciated.     — Jolyn Eggart, Helena, Mont.

Unfortunately, Man caused this problem. We killed the larger predators, thus disturbing the balance of ecosystems, and destroyed wildlife habitat with commercial and residential development. Deer have adjusted to urbanization and are multiplying in huge numbers. A healthy doe with plenty to eat will have twins or triplets. Mother Nature has her way: When animal populations get too high, disease and starvation enter the picture and lower numbers. I would rather have professional wildlife biologists come up with a wildlife management plan to reduce the species population. To date, the only practice that really works with deer is to kill them during hunting seasons and in special “hunts” in urban environments.

I just wanted you to know I understand fully what you are saying about creating “habitat.” I have farmed two family farms for 30-plus years. It was a great moment in our lives when we realized how valuable most wildlife is to successful control of insects. We all must think of “Gaia” as a priority in all that we do.     — Russell Bezette , LaVerkin, Utah

I grew up on a farm in Iowa and learned at an early age to appreciate the beauty of nature. We need to get youth involved at an early age in “nature” activities and later in addressing the key environmental problems we are facing today, if we are to protect the future of the Earth.

What is the difference between the WindStar Wildlife Institute’s backyard certification and the National Wildlife Federation’s program?     — Shannon Mayorga, Miami, Fl.

I am often asked this question. Both organizations are interested in educating people about the need to establish and enhance the wildlife habitat on their properties. NWF has acquired funds from industry to support their program in a big way. WindStar’s American Wildlife Habitat Registry Program is on a much smaller scale. I believe we are a little more strict on our habitat evaluations leading to certification. And we deliberately keep the cost low so more families can participate — $15. For this, you receive a beautiful certificate and can purchase a sign for posting on your property at an additional cost of $15.

Do you make any money doing this? I’d do what you’re doing in a second if I could eek out a living here in Silicon Valley, Calif. If I can help out, please let me know. I’d love to!     — Brooke Miller, Los Altos, Calif.

WindStar Wildlife Institute is a national, nonprofit 501(c)(3) conservation organization. Since founding the Institute, I have not taken any salary. Support for living comes from my wife’s small consulting business. I have sacrificed a comfortable retirement for doing what I love and to make a difference.

While working at a new nonprofit estate, I’ve noticed a number of factors amenable to your reform. First off, the acreage is within a town full of wildlife lands and preserves — there are upper-class predators, coyotes, and a beaver lives on the upland edge of the property. Mostly everything is woods, and where the leaf-bed ceases the lawn mower takes over. If any one step were made to change these fields into your dream, what would it be?     — Dennis Moore, Shelton, Conn.

Develop more “edge” to the wooded area. This is the area adjoining the woodland. The “edge” formed by natural vegetation or plantings can be extremely productive for wildlife. These areas provide for a variety of wildlife needs such as feeding, nesting, dusting, sunning, den sites, travel lanes, and escape or protective cover. Animals and birds find most attractive the low, shrub-stage areas where seeds, fruit, browse, and overhead cover are most plentiful. Encourage native plants such as shrubs, vines, wildflowers, and native, warm-season grasses. Those that bear nuts and fleshy fruits are most valuable. Hickory, serviceberry, red-osier and gray dogwood, viburnums, blueberries, and grapes are good, too.

Do you know of any similar organizations in other parts of the world that provide info on local native species?     — Lyndall Jennings, Page, Australia

You might try:

I live in a rented apartment where I am fortunate to have a backyard space. I am not allowed to plant anything that would get in the way of mowing, and stuff I plant in pots just gets knocked around and broken by neighborhood dogs or peed on and killed by neighborhood cats. However, I have five bird feeders and put seed on the ground for ground feeders, ‘coons, and squirrels. Would this qualify me as a backyard naturalist? Is there anything else I can do for the wildlife in my neighborhood?     — Ellen Fisher, Knoxville, Tenn.

You certainly are doing activities that naturalists do. The four elements for a wildlife habitat are food, water, cover, and space to raise a family. I don’t know how much cover or space is available, but you certainly could provide water in a birdbath.

Is it safe for birds and butterflies if I redirect the condensation from my central air into a birdbath?     — B. Kertz, Houston, Texas

I would not do it. You never know what trace metals are present.

Could you tell us a little more about the Internet course that WindStar offers? For instance, what can be learned that will help me to improve my habitat for the critters that you prefer to people?     — Jack Lewnes, Port Republic, Md.

Great question. If you love to feed, photograph, or just observe wildlife, this new Internet-based home study course might be for you. You can do it at your own pace and time. You will acquire a better appreciation of nature, discover how you can provide a “helping hand” in your wildlife habitat and others, and you will take what you already know about wildlife to a higher level. By taking this course and becoming a certified Wildlife Habitat Naturalist, you will have more credibility when you make recommendations to others on how to attract more wildlife or how to deal with a wildlife problem.

The first half of the 14-unit course is devoted to Discovery — Why landscape for wildlife, principles and concepts of forest and wildlife management, components of a wildlife habitat, how to select the best plants for your habitat, how to maintain trees and shrubs, managing the habitat for specific wildlife species, how to deal with problem wildlife, and what biodiversity means to people and their communities.

The second half is devoted to Projects — Best ways to watch and photograph wildlife, how to build backyard ponds and bogs, how to build a bluebird trail, how to create a wildflower meadow for butterflies and birds, and everything you ever wanted to know about bird feeding. The final “test” for the course is the wildlife habitat plan students must create for their own property (or a property approved by the Institute) that they will be able to follow for years to come. Cost is only $215 and includes a Resource Notebook, presentations CD, and regional native plant CD.

If you could advise people to make just one change in their overall lifestyle, what would it be?     — Amy Haney, Acworth, Ga.

Create your own personal sanctuary where you live. Perhaps it is in your wildlife habitat. Maybe it’s a folding chair that you take to your favorite area in your yard. Take time to sit down and just observe Mother Nature in all her wonder and splendor. Soon your breathing will slow down and you will start to relax. Perhaps you’ll see a beautiful butterfly, or a wildflower, or a squirrel. When you resume your regular activities, you will be able to think better and handle life’s ups and downs.

What are your comments on the recently released report which revealed that the environmental situation is so much more urgent than most realize, that within 20 years it will be a global emergency many times worse than terrorism?     — Amy Haney, Acworth, Ga.

For my own sanity, I learned long ago not to dwell on the “sensational” reports that are issued. This is true for reports that say you shouldn’t eat a particular food because it is bad for you. If we took all of these to heart, we would starve. The same is true in the environment.

Unfortunately, the only way to wake up some people is with a “sensational” report. Most people know we have a problem with global warming, but getting the administration and Congress to do something about it is like pulling teeth. Good communication and education are the only ways we are going to convince the opinion leaders that something should be done.

Eleven years ago I was one of three founders of an organization here in Tulsa, Okla., called Make Every Home a Wildlife Habitat. Last year, we merged with the Tulsa Audubon Society to get more support and be a part of the National Audubon Society’s new initiative, Gardening for Life. During our 10 years we sponsored annual Backyard Habitat Garden Tours which attracted at least 700 people per year. Each yard also featured a nursery that specialized in native plants and those good for wildlife habitat. We also created a public garden and put out four newsletters per year, and I made more than 100 presentations to various organizations and taught workshops.

I wish you all the best of luck in overcoming people’s inertia and the belief that “traditional lawns and landscaping,” complete with exotic plants, pesticides, and herbicides, are the best way to surround homes. I have made a small dent but wish that there was more of a national movement. Do you think we can convince the big, national nurseries to change their ways?     — Carol Eames, Tulsa, Okla.

I commend you on your many contributions to the “natural landscaping” movement. There are a growing number of native plant nurseries, but we need to convince the “big box” stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s to promote native plants and not sell invasives. I believe we will see more cooperation from national nurseries — especially after the latest incident where one of the nation’s largest wholesale sellers of plants, with six nurseries in California, Oregon, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia, may have shipped plants with sudden oak death syndrome throughout the U.S. and Canada. To date, 38 species of plants are susceptible to the fungus-like disease.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.