‘Cemetery Birding’ highlights why hobbyists are flocking to cemeteries across Texas

Author Jennifer L. Bristol visited some 300 cemeteries across the Lone Star State to write her book, spotting lifers and uncovering history throughout the journey.

By Raul AlonzoOctober 24, 2023 1:03 pm, , ,

It’s an overcast morning in early October when I find myself walking along the rocky, unpaved pathways that snake around the aged headstones of Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery. In typical Texas fashion, it’s a humid one.

I am meeting with author Jennifer L. Bristol, but not to engage in any spooky season shenanigans. Rather, we picked the location to discuss Bristol’s latest book, “Cemetery Birding: An Unexpected Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas.”

And, of course, to do a bit of birding ourselves.

Michael Minasi / Texas Standard

Author Jennifer Bristol poses with her book, "Cemetery Birding: An Unexpected Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas."

I’m following Bristol’s lead as we make our way down the paths – she’s led birding excursions in this exact cemetery since the release of her book a couple of months ago. It’s also where she took the photo of the mockingbird – “cemetery royalty,” she says – that adorns the cover. So she knows the grounds quite well.

Formerly of Texas Parks and Wildlife, Bristol now spends much of her time encouraging others to engage with and learn about birding. For this latest book, she visited some 300 cemeteries across the Lone Star State to whittle down a list to 91 – one more location than featured in her previous book, “Parking Lot Birding.”

She says part of her turn toward cemeteries in this latest installment is to help people connect with nature who may typically think of it as a faraway place – when, instead, there are opportunities to forge those connections in spaces that may just be down the street from you.

“I’ve always just loved wildlife, and I love the outdoors,” Bristol said. “And I think that’s probably the most or the biggest piece for me – wanting to share the joy and wonder of nature and get people outdoors and in any space that they feel comfortable, be it at a cemetery or, you know, national wildlife refuge … Whatever draws them, makes them feel connected to the outdoors.”

But while she knows her stuff when it comes to bird migratory patterns and identifying different calls, she tells me she actually came to the hobby kind of late, following an injury she sustained after getting bucked off her mustang.

“So I needed something slower to do,” Bristol said. “My mom and my husband were already into birding, so I was like, ‘okay, I’ll go out’ and, you know, I liked what I saw that day, and that was it. I was hooked.”

Michael Minasi / Texas Standard

Texas Standard’s Raul Alonzo interviews author Jennifer Bristol about her book, "Cemetery Birding: An Unexpected Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas," at Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.

It’s actually not my first time birding in a cemetery, though the first time I did it was more of a spontaneous thing after paying respects to some departed family members one day in San Diego, Texas. I found myself questioning then whether it was actually kosher to partake in the hobby in such a space – plus, this was also before I knew cemetery birding was, well, a thing.

So naturally, one of the first questions I posed to Bristol was why bird in cemeteries at all.

She explains to me how her grandfather cultivated an appreciation of cemeteries as important historical spaces when she was younger and they’d stop and visit many on road trips. But she also explained something to me that seemed to be a crux in her book: Cemeteries, historically, have long been considered as some of the first public parks in the U.S.

“They’ve always served a dual purpose of being, you know, a place to honor our departed, but also a space for the living, and they’re designed as such,” Bristol said.

Before the early 1800s, many cemeteries followed very basic grid designs, particularly those in urban areas that were traditionally built next to churches.

Michael Minasi / Texas Standard

Oakwood Cemetery is Austin's oldest cemetery, and the final resting ground of many notable figures from the city's history.

But as the Romantic era came into full swing, a new emphasis was placed on returning to nature as a means of reflection. This inspired the rural cemetery movement, which ushered in design changes to cemeteries that focused on incorporating more natural environments for resting grounds – think more trees, winding pathways and native grasses.

All this was taking place around the time Texas was becoming a state, and so the makeup of the state’s cemeteries reflects a culmination of those traditional and nature-based designs.

“They wanted to attract people to their cemetery and have them be in the space that they could really enjoy nature,” Bristol said. “And to do so, they have looping pathways, and they take advantage of the rolling hills. You know, they would plan where the trees were.”

The result was that cemeteries also became a means of escaping the crowded, polluted confines of the city. And some, such as Houston’s Glenwood Cemetery and the Oakland Cemetery in Dallas, were even celebrated as parks when they first opened – and still very much serve a similar function today.

Michael Minasi / Texas Standard

The abundance of native trees and grasses used in many cemeteries helps to attract a variety of bird species, even when located in urban areas.

The other result? The abundance of green space, tree cover and native grasses draws an abundance of the many migratory species that pass through Texas – making cemeteries prime grounds for birding.

But, unlike the typical state parks or wildlife centers one might initially think of when they think of birding, there are certain ethical guidelines Bristol outlines in her book for birding in a cemetery. While new burials no longer occur in Oakwood Cemetery, others that do have new services should be treated with caution and care.

“You know, if there is a service going on, either come back and let them have their space or go to the opposite side of the cemetery,” Bristol advises. “That is its primary function, and those people deserve to have that time and that space. So I just tell people to be really be mindful of that and intentional.”

In addition, cemetery birders should never lean or set any equipment upon headstones, nor step upon any graves – no matter how eager one may be to pursue a particular bird.

“It’s quite different than birding just in a park or at a nature center,” Bristol said. “You do have to be more thoughtful, but the reward is worth it because, I mean, we’re right here in the center of Austin, Texas, and it’s really quiet.”

An Eastern bluebird, photographed by Bristol on a previous excursion to Oakwood Cemetery. Courtesy of Jennifer L. Bristol

Oakwood Cemetery is tucked into a neighborhood that runs right next to Interstate 35 and is in close proximity to the University of Texas campus, as well as the state Capitol. But perhaps as a testament to its design or perhaps to the mentality one walks onto cemetery grounds with, the stillness felt was pervasive. The cemetery was, indeed, quiet so that the wind could be heard rustling the grasses – carrying with it a symphony of birdsongs.

By my amateur birder ear, I was able to identify blue jays, cardinals and the ever-present grackles. Bristol added a monk parakeet and Carolina wren to that, and was able to identify by sight some European starlings, house finches and brown-headed cowbirds. However, Bristol’s E-Bird app recorded some 17 different birds, including a downy woodpecker, Carolina chickadee and an Eastern bluebird, which she had been seeking out that day.

Not bad for a little-over-an-hour stroll in a Central Austin cemetery.

Bristol and her book will be featured as part of the upcoming Texas Book Festival in Downtown Austin Nov. 11-12. Her father, George Bristol, will likewise be featured with his recent book on Texas state parks, marking the first time a father-daughter duo have been selected for the festival for their respective books.

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