Valerie Kenyon Gaffney was born in a small town outside of Syracuse, New York. She attended the State University of New York as well as Auburn Community College before moving to Washington DC, in 1982. Her first job was in the Circulation Department of the Washington Post, followed by brief stints in the advertising and preprint departments before being promoted to the production department. At the time of her retirement from The Post in 2018 she was an Assistant Superintendent in the Mailroom, serving as Advertising Materials and Quality Assurance Manager. She said it was the best job she ever had, “until retirement that is, which while not paying as much, is now my best job ever.”
Valerie related that a friend once told her you should never retire without a plan – or the rest of your life will be spent sitting on a couch. Shortly after retirement she became active in the Virginia Native Plant Society’s local chapter and has served as its Treasurer for the last three years. In 2018, she completed Virginia Master Gardener training and is also a member of two Prince William County garden clubs.
When and how did you become interested in nature and the natural world? “We always had birdfeeders growing up and I played outside all the time”, Valerie noted. “My mother had a large vegetable garden that I had to help weed. I made a commitment that when I had an outdoor space as an adult, it would be filled with flowers and plants that didn’t need weeding,” she continued. “Well, I do have a garden with flowers and plants, but I still have to weed!”
“When I worked at the Washington Post, one of my managers was very interested in nature and birds”, she shared. “He introduced me to Doug Tallamy’s writings, which changed my whole perspective on nature. As I read more, and heard Doug speak on several occasions, I became so convinced of the importance of native plants that the only yard that has curb appeal for me is one with native plants.”
Describe what you do on your property to support a healthy ecosystem.
Valerie bought a townhouse in Woodbridge in 2007 “The previous owner had done nothing with the yard,” she explained. “There was nothing for any birds to eat, even house sparrows! I essentially had a blank canvas.” Given her experience with the Virginia Native Plant Society, she decided to install primarily native plants. She planted Joe Pye Weed, common milkweed, and nandina. “Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” Valerie exclaimed, who at the time was no Master Gardener. She planted the nandina near her floor to ceiling kitchen windows, where it grew so large it blocked out all natural light. “Then I did the research I should have done initially and replaced the nandina with viburnum, which I bought from a local native plant vendor.” This plan had a spectacular display of berries the first year and was filled with birds. Unfortunately, Valerie was not told by the nursery owner that she needed another species of viburnum in order to get berries every year – so in the second year while the plant flourished, it didn’t berry. “So I got another species of viburnum mailed to me from a reputable vendor in Nebraska and sure enough, I have had loads of berries each year that draw in lots of birds, including after the Eastern Bluebird, the Catbird, another of my favorites.”
Valerie’s yard is a certified Audubon at Home Wildlife Habitat and provides endless entertainment for her cat Eleanor Rigby. “The catbirds will visit the viburnum to pick berries for their young, which they feed in sight of my floor-to-ceiling kitchen window. I can always find Eleanor Rigby there, pawing at the glass.”
Valerie is very passionate about cats being kept indoors. She even wrote an article for Bird Box, the Virginia Bluebird Society newsletter which was subsequently reprinted in the North American Bluebird Society newsletter about the peril that cats pose to birds (scroll down to page 5 for her article). In this article she cites the gruesome statistic from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on how many birds are killed by cats: “an estimated 2.4 billion birds annually and the No. 1 human-caused reasons for the loss of birds, aside from habitat loss.”
What is the most amazing thing you have experienced in nature?
In November 2018, one of Valerie’s friends – the same colleague who introduced her to Doug Tallamy - invited her to join him and two others to go raptor trapping on Short Hill Mountain, an extension of the Kittatinny Ridge near Purcellville. The station has one blind, two bow traps for capturing larger raptors and one mist net for smaller raptors.
According to the very detailed records kept for that day, “It was a good day, not a great day and there was a little flurry of action just after 10:00 a.m. For the day, we caught one 1st year Cooper's Hawk, four 1st year Red Tail Hawks, and one adult Red Tail hawk.” The photo accompanying this interview is one of Valerie about to release the first catch of the day, a female Cooper’s hawk, with a Wing Chord of 257mm, and weighing 540 grams. Alas, the licensed bander who owned the station passed away in 2018 and it was Valerie’s one and only raptor trapping adventure. “But it was truly the thrill of a lifetime,” she reminisced.
As the Virginia Bluebird Society (VBS) President, what would you say have been your greatest achievements since you assumed this position – and what do you see as the challenges ahead?
Valerie has been active in the Virginia Bluebird Society for ten years. She started feeding bluebirds during a snowstorm when she observed two males digging through the snow, feeding at the bird seed feeder. That very afternoon she went out and purchased live mealworms, put up a couple of feeders and now makes her own suet cakes for the birds. “I was hooked on bluebirds,” she said.
The following spring a friend of hers said they needed volunteers to monitor the bluebird trail at Marine Corps Base Quantico. She ended up monitoring that trail for several years and now monitors a nine-box trail on a golf course in Dumfries. This same friend recruited her for the Virginia Bluebird Society’s Board, which she joined six years ago. In 2019, she became President of the Society and has served in that capacity since then.
In terms of accomplishments, she is especially proud of the work VBS has done to increase engagement with middle and high school students through grants for installation of nest box trails and nest boxes with cameras at schools. Despite the pandemic, VBS was still able to site trails at schools in Harrisonburg, Clifton, and St. George, and has placed nest boxes with cameras at several schools and community centers throughout the state.
She cites the late 2020 hiring of a part-time State Coordinator as being an important first step in increasing outreach to the community. Through a mini-grant provided by Virginia Association for Environmental Education (VAEE), lesson plans have been developed that correlate with Virginia Fourth Grade Science Standards of Learning to use with the nest box cameras provided to schools by VBS.
In terms of challenges, she mentioned recruiting a more diverse corps of volunteers. “Right now our board of directors is majority older, white women. I would really like to have a more ‘colorful’ board, and one that includes a few younger people. I know they’re out there. The trick is finding them and drawing them into our nest,” she explained.
Valerie continued, “The work we do is important, and as climate change accelerates and habitat loss increases, it will become increasingly important to continue protecting our native cavity nesters and extending our ecosystems. Collaborating with schools, with groups such as Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners, all helps to spread the word.” Combining her personal involvement with Virginia Bluebird Society, Master Gardeners, and Virginia Native Plant Society is what she calls “cross pollination.”
Valerie concluded the interview with three wishes for everyone to do: put up a nest box in your backyard; plant more natives; and come volunteer with VBS.
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl, September 2021
Photos courtesy of Valerie Kenyon Gaffney:
Bee on sneezeweed
Bluebird in the rain
Monarch on milkweed
Catbird fledging through kitchen window
Photo of Valerie with Cooper’s hawk taken by Kevin O’Neill on Short Hill Mountain
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