Bird Hills Nature Area is the largest park in the city. Its hilly woods are a sanctuary for hikers. The area is closed to bicycles to prevent damage from erosion. The park is bordered by Newport Rd on the west, Bird Rd on the north, Huron River Dr on the east and M-14 on the south. A parking lot is located on Newport Rd. A small pull-off parking area is located on Bird Rd. Parking is also available in the Barton Nature Area lot, near the Barton Dam. A trail starting just north of this parking lot across Huron River Dr connects you to the Bird Rd trail head and the main part of Bird Hills. There are five trailheads: at Down Up Circle, at Bird Rd, at Beechwood Dr, and two near the Newport Rd parking area. No facilities are available in this undeveloped park. The unpaved trails wind through hills and ravines covered with beech, sugar maple, flowering dogwood, oaks and hickory and various spring wildflowers. Other areas have been planted with various trees not native to our area.
- Age: Bird Hills was bought by the City from the Graves family in 1967
- Size: 161.66 acres
- Ecosystem types: mesic forest, old field, wet forest, emergent marsh
History: Bird Hills has an interesting and varied land use history that adds to its significance as a park. Old photos indicate that the property was logged in the late 1800s. The central ridge and slopes were barely spotted with trees and were heavily grazed by cattle. Some remnants of the park’s agricultural past are still visible today. Old concrete tracks mark the site of a farm road designed to fit the wheels of a wagon, while letting the horse or ox pulling the wagon walk on softer ground between the tracks. The northwest portion of the park was used as a terraced fruit orchard.
In the early 1900s, the Graves family bought the property as a potential development site. At this time much of the main ridge in the park was still cattle pasture and was nearly treeless. The absence of plant cover increased the amount of runoff from the high ridge after a rain event. This caused severe erosion in the steep ravines running down to the river.
To make the land more appealing for development, Henry Graves planted a variety of trees on the open site. This contributes to the diversity of woody plants in Bird Hills today, and explains why many non-native trees such as Scots pine, Douglas fir, and white fir can be found there. However, these development plans never came to be.
In 1967, the City bought the majority of the land from the Graves family to be used as a park. In the 1970s, when plans to create a condominium complex next to the park surfaced, neighbors and other citizens rallied and raised enough money to help buy the land. Again in 1990, more land adjacent to the now-larger park was threatened by development, and again the citizens and City teamed up to buy the land to add to the park.
It is likely that the overstory, and certainly the understory, that existed at Bird Hills 200 years ago was different than it appears today. In addition to the introduction of non-native species, the composition of flora has also been influenced by fire suppression. As fires regularly moved through Washtenaw County prior to European settlement, the forest understory was thinned, and the overstory was more open, allowing native species such as oak and hickory to flourish. With continued fire suppression, however, some of the forested areas of Bird Hills have become better suited for shade tolerant non-native and invasive species such as Norway maple, white ash, and buckthorn. If the forest is allowed to develop in the absence of fire, non-native species will dominate and out-compete the native plants for light, space, and nutrients. This is why Natural Area Preservation (NAP) conducts controlled fires in Bird Hills during the spring and fall.
The rich diversity of native plant species found in Bird Hills ranks the park second highest overall in the City’s Floristic Quality Assessment of its natural areas. This high value gives an indication of how “natural” the site is (approximating the vegetative conditions present prior to European settlement in the early 1800s). A higher value reflects a higher coefficient of conservatism for the species growing in that area. These conservative species have become so highly adapted to a specific set of biotic and abiotic conditions (including soil condition, temperature, moisture, humidity, presence of fire, etc.) that they cannot exist if these conditions are modified evenly slightly. So, when you encounter these species in the wild, as you do in some of the biological communities at Bird Hills, you can be fairly confident that you have come across an area that is relatively “natural” and undisturbed.