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Scientists, Singers, & Dancers Flock To Pablo's Community Bird Festival

Biologist Byron Crow talks about falcons at the 2016 Community Bird Festival in Pablo, MT.
Chérie Newman

The Community Bird Festival in Pablo is billed as a "celebration of birds in science; art; and Salish, Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenai Tribal culture." MTPR's Chérie Newman checks in with scientists, tribal leaders, and native dancers at this unique festival to see why, and how, they're celebrating.

Johnny Arlee is a spiritual and cultural leader of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and one of the very few people able to name birds in both Salish and English, like these:

Johnny Arlee:  [says the Salish word for robin], which is the robin; [says the Salish word for meadowlark] which is the meadowlark; [says the Salish word for crow], which is the crow; [says the Salish word for raven] which is the raven.

Chérie Newman: Last week, Arlee joined other tribal leaders, wildlife biologists, students, dancers, and musicians in celebrating the Fourth Annual Community Bird Festival in Pablo, MT.

Wildlife biologist Whisper Camel-Means, one of the event organizers, says this year’s festival celebrates the 100 year anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, signed in 1916.

Whisper Camel-Means: It was originally between the United States and Great Britain, signing for Canada. So, it was originally just for the two countries to be able to protect migratory birds because people saw a decline from hunting and other uses.

CN: Those other uses included decorations for apparel, says Janene Lichtenberg, head of the department of wildlife and fisheries at Salish Kootenai College.

Janene Lichtenberg: There was a lot of market hunting and selling of birds and bird parts and ladies wanting fancy hats, and such.

CN: As a result, some types of birds are no longer around.

JL: The Carolina parakeet was one species that went extinct and the other the passenger pigeon.

CN: The word “birds” doesn’t usually make a person think of money, but Lichtenberg says maybe it should.

JL: We’ve actually had several times when this valley had a high vole population and a large number of snowy owls came to the region. And when word got out, we had people come from as far away as Texas, I heard, just to see owls in the Polson area.

CN: The key to a healthy bird population is habitat. Art Soukkala, Wildlife biologist with the Natural Resources Department of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, has been working on land restoration for 30 years. And although it’s a long, slow process he’s pleased with the results.

Art Soukkala: When I first started it was rare to see Sandhill cranes, but it’s not unusual to see them now. Same with Black-necked stilts, a wetland bird.

CN: But, as usual, it takes the proverbial village to accomplish change.

AS: Efforts from the state, the Fish and Wildife Service, the Tribes, trying to restore habitats, trying to stem pesticide use and use better methods to not have effects on wildlife.

CN: Everyone working together with good results: cause for celebration, indeed. There was singing and dancing at the Fourth Annual Community Bird Festival. One of the dancers was 8th-grader Ardon McDonald.

Ardon McDonald, in costume for the prairie chicken dance.
Credit Chérie Newman
Ardon McDonald, in costume for the prairie chicken dance.

Ardon McDonald: I do the prairie chicken dance. It’s a mating dance. The male prairie chickens do these moves, and this dance is to imitate that dance that they do for their female.

CN: Johnny Arlee tells the origin story for the dance.

JA: That story comes from a man who was out on the fields, open fields, on a vision quest. And he was laying out there and all of a sudden he hears this song coming and hears a dancin’. So he peeks up over the tall grass and sees them dancin’—the prairie chicken. They get down and they shake and they go in different motions and they had that song. So he came back to the tribe and showed the people that dance. And today we do that prairie chicken dance.

CN: As a group of musicians called Yamincut [yaw-min-suit] drummed and sang, Ardon McDonald and high-school-junior Cortez Osborn bobbed and dipped and stepped across the stage wearing splendid regalia. And yes, there were feathers.

Ardon McDonald and Cortez Osborne perfrom the prairie chicken dance:

Chérie Newman is an arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. Her weekly literary program, The Write Question, is broadcast on several public radio stations, and available online at and
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