RALEIGH — Lena Gallitano got a camera for Christmas one year, and she found her lens drawn to the stark outline of birds against the white snow outside her Chicago window.
A native of Chapel Hill who had a job with the federal school lunch program there, she bought a field guide so that she could figure out the local birds. An enduring hobby was born.
“I started looking out in the woods at different birds and wondering what they were,” Gallitano says. “We had a bird feeder, and I kept it full.”
Since then, she has sought out her winged friends in remote locales across the world and in her own Five Points backyard, where whirring hummingbirds and stately orioles are regular visitors.
Gallitano, 69, has also emerged as a key advocate for preserving the land where birds thrive in North Carolina.
Through her work with the county and state Audubon Society, she helped establish the N.C. Birding Trail, fought the Navy landing field that would have disturbed migratory birds in Eastern North Carolina and helped preserve bird habitats at several local parks, among other projects.
Her work during the past two decades recently got nationwide attention when the national Audubon Society, an environmental group rooted in a love of birds, recognized her with its William Dutcher Award.
National Audubon President David Yarnold says that the steady commitment of people such as Gallitano has allowed his organization to protect birds and connect people with the outdoors.
“Her boundless energy and commitment to conservation amazes and inspires those around her,” Yarnold says. “She demonstrates the power of a citizen network like Audubon.”
A growing role
Gallitano grew up on the family farm outside Chapel Hill where her father was raised. Her parents were not farmers; her father worked as a butcher, her mother as a nurse.
She recalls, however, that they kept a cow, some chickens and a garden – and were always in tune with the outdoors.
“We lived out in the country,” she says. “We always were aware of what was going on with nature around us.”
Gallitano went to college in Greensboro, earning her degree in home economics. Once out of school, she moved to Maryland and joined the Air Force, which took her to Arkansas and then back to Virginia, where she later worked for the Army, planning its food purchases.
That job led her to a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture overseeing school lunches for a seven-state region including Illinois. It was then that her interest in birds took flight.
After buying that first field guide, she began to amass what is now an impressive knowledge of bird species on birding trips around Illinois lakes with a neighbor.
Now her shelves are filled with such guides, along with decorative birdhouses and bird sculptures.
Gallitano moved to the Triangle for her husband’s job, though the couple divorced not long after.
Once in Raleigh, she went back to school at N.C. State University, where she studied horticulture. Her research involved improving maintenance methods for the state’s highway wildflower program. She went on to work at N.C. State as a researcher and manager of the zoology lab.
She also continued bird watching in her home state, including a weekend Audubon field trip to Pea Island, on the Outer Banks, where her companions encouraged her to take on an active role in helping birds.
“By the end of the trip, they were saying I needed to be on the board of Wake Audubon,” she says.
She joined the board, and from that time on she has taken on one project after another for more than 20 years, becoming even more focused on that work after retiring a few years ago.
What’s ‘good for the bird’ …
When she retired, the N.C. Birding Trail was little more than a nice idea borrowed from a similar trail in Texas that Gallitano had once hiked.
The trail is not so much a physical place as an idea – a network of more than 300 birding sites and other local attractions that can be reached by car and are compiled in three guidebooks. They include state, county and local parks, as well as private businesses.
Several government agencies and nonprofits were involved in creating it, but Gallitano offered to donate 20 hours a week for a year to move the project forward, including coordinating among agencies and conducting a series of community meetings across the state.
In a little over a year, she passed the project on to a paid employee who created the guides, though she remains involved.
At the time she started that project, she was part of a coalition fighting the U.S. Navy’s attempt to locate an outlying landing field in an area of Eastern North Carolina that is home to a wide variety of migratory birds.
Gallitano thought that making it easier for people to appreciate the birds might help her and other advocates make their argument. She has since continued to push the economic value of preserving bird habitats in local communities.
“With the trail, we’d have the ability to show people that these areas could generate tourism,” she says. “It’s good for the bird, and it’s good for business.”
Locally, she helped the county create a wildlife meadow at Anderson Pointe Park, putting her knowledge of horticulture to use in designing a bird-friendly habitat.
She later became involved in the more contentious planning of Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve; the land was slated to be ball fields but instead is being developed as a nature park.
Gallitano served as Wake Audubon’s president, on the organization’s statewide board and as a liaison between the state and local chapters.
She still serves on the development committee for Audubon North Carolina, maintains the Facebook page for the N.C. Birding Trail and works on fundraising for the organization. She rode her bike across the state two years ago as part of the “Bike for Birds” program, and will do it again in October – this time a shorter ride from Holly Springs to Atlantic Beach.
Once a year, she takes a trip focused on birding. She has traveled to Alaska, several Central American countries and remote locales in Bhutan. She also does bird counts at local parks.
She insists that bird watching is more popular than people realize; even people who don’t call themselves birders find themselves staring into treetops.
And once you start to love the birds, she says, you have to work to protect the land where they live.
“I couldn’t be a birder without also being an environmentalist,” she says.
Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or find Tar Heel of the Week on Facebook.