Debs Park Audubon Center celebrates 10 years of wilderness in the city

By Brenda Rees

This weekend, the Audubon Center in Debs Park celebrated 10 years as a backyard wilderness area for residents of Northeast Los Angeles and nature lovers across Southern California.

The huge crowds – mostly families with young children – came to show their support for the institution and the outdoors by celebrating the afternoon with music, crafts, live-animal demonstrations, native plants and nature hikes.

“We are very fortunate to have this center here,” says Andrea Moran of Highland Park, who says she routinely brings her grandchildren to hike and be outdoors. “This is a great place to introduce kids to nature.”

Moran was at the table where teenage leaders from local high schools were letting the crowds gently touch a gopher snake. Nearby, kids and parents were learning about black and brown widows (with live specimens in glass containers) and another table showcased the birds of the area with feathers and taxidermy examples. On stage, live critters were part of a show by Nature Wildworks – barn owls, possums and more – followed by music by Las Cafeteras and the Hollow Trees.

Inside, an art show displayed creativity from elementary and middle school students. Outside in the play area, kids were working together to pump water to create a stream; further up the hill, the climbing action was fierce on the old grandparent pepper trees with their low-hanging thick branches. It was hard for many parents to pull their children away from the joy of nature play.

“Today is a day to celebrate the relationships we have built here in the area with the community,” says Audubon Center at Debs Park director Jeff Chapman looking back at the decade. “Ten years ago, the thinking was ‘Let’s get kids out of the city and bring them to nature,’” he explains. “Today we are more ‘Let’s show the nature of the city’ to the kids. We are cultivating the next generation of conservationists right in our own backyard.”

When the Audubon Center opened its doors in 2003, the $5 million Nature Center was the only one in Southern California (it still is). The approximately 5,000-square-foot building was touted as the nation’s first LEED Platinum building from the U.S. Green Building Council, garnering points for an efficient water system and renewable energy sources. The building is completely self-sufficient: all power and air conditioning is provided by the sun.

The Debs Park Center, along with Prospect Park Center in Brooklyn, New York, were two of the first urban Audubon facilities in the country.

Overall, the Debs Park center was a long labor of love by nature-loving locals and the National Audubon Society that wanted to create nature centers in urban areas, a very radical idea for the times.

Back then, Audubon, with active chapters around the Los Angeles area (and still do), opened its first formal office in 1990 near the Ballona Wetlands. Officials started looking east for other locales that made sense for continual educational programming; in 1998 they opened an office at a storefront in Highland Park.

Along with local activists, Audubon chose Debs Park – with its black walnut trees and several species of rare birds including the Nuttall’s woodpecker – as an ideal location for its first series of programs and workshops. Family events in the park were well-attended, especially by the older immigrants who wanted to share nature with their young family members.

Finally, with sponsors like the Toyota Motor Corp. of America, the James Irvine Foundation and others, Audubon was able to lease 17 acres of the 300-acre park where it eventually built the then state-of-the-art nature center.

More than 50,000 schoolchildren live within a two-mile radius of the park; many first come to the center via field trips for the “Nature’s Classroom” hands-on science curriculum. Often, kids will come back with their whole clan for Family Nature Walks or the monthly bird watching program for beginners. In the summer, kids have joined in the Arroyo Adventure summer day camp and all ages have enjoyed the Audubon Film Fridays programming.

Families with very young children sign up for Nature Together, a monthly program where parents and children explore outside landscape, and Art and Nature where caregivers and kids can create with outdoor inspiration.

During Saturday’s anniversary celebration, many families were hitting the short Butterfly Loop trail for maybe a glimpse of real-live nature. On the trail, two small boys with their mom stopped at a fallen tree. They were offering various reasons how the tree had died. As they continued their walk, they remained quiet, listening to the crickets chirp in the shade, passing by gnarled branches, leaves and dry grasses. A flap of wings overhead made everyone look up with open mouths and focused eyes. “Cool!” “Wow!”

The bird connection continues the Audubon mission, says Chapman who maintains that in the next 10 years, he’d like to see this love of nature extent beyond Debs Park into the whole of Los Angeles. “How can we help shape L.A. into a place where birds thrive and people prosper?” he muses. “How can advocating for birds benefit people? Those are the bigger questions of today and tomorrow.”

Children’s Woodland at Audubon Center/Martha Benedict

Photo by Martha Benedict

Wildlife In The Park

With nearly 140 species of birds, Ernest E. Debs Park in Los Angeles is also home to a variety of reptiles, amphibians, fish, mammals and butterflies—some native and other that have been introduced into the area. Here’s a partial list of some of the creatures that can be found in and around the Audubon Center.


  • Red-tail hawk
  • American kestrel
  • Barn owl
  • White-throated swift
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Black phoebe
  • Cassin’s kingbird
  • Bewick’s wren
  • Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  • Spotted towhee
  • Brewer’s blackbird
  • Lesser goldfinch


  • Western fence-lizard
  • Western skink
  • Southern alligator lizard
  • Ringneck snake


  • Western toad
  • Black-bellied slender-salamander


  • Largemouth bass
  • Bluegill
  • Black bullhead


  • Virginia opossum
  • Raccoon
  • Coyote
  • Striped skunk
  • Botta’s pocket gopher
  • Eastern fox-squirrel
  • California harvest mouse
  • Broad-handed mole
  • Audubon’s cottontail

Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock.

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