An example of Redtail’s signs. Thanks to Redtail Interpretive Nature Signs for allowing me to use this image.  Click to enlarge.

Most people are ambivalent about signs, except those that direct you to where you want to go.  In our parks there are a few signs – some very good.  The new signs along the Cooks River that are a map of the parks along the river are excellent.

There are the park rules signs. It’s rare to find one that hasn’t been scrawled with the same graffiti tag.  Someone out there takes these signs personally.  There are the signs inside picnic kiosks saying what you cannot do.  These are routinely ignored, as the community knows they are never enforced.

There are the Cooks Eye signs, made by the Cooks River Valley Association & scattered all along the Cooks River. These ask for help in reporting pollution & give phone contact information.  People don’t mind these as they recognise the community effort.

People often talk to me about the litter in parks, especially the kind of litter that will harm wildlife like fishing line, string & balloons.  This invariably leads to the need for signs designed to stop inappropriate behaviour.  Almost always the dislike of signs is mentioned because they are mostly ugly, mostly authoritative & mostly say NO.  Much of the signage is seen as a blight on the landscape, rather than an addition.  Perhaps this is why most of the park rules signs have been spray-painted?

A while ago someone said to me, “Can’t you find signs that are good to look at & educational?”  At the time I thought it was a big ask, but as is often the way, the answer to this request came to my computer without even the need to search.

I came across ‘Redtail Interpretive Nature Signs’ & they have done work for a number of local Councils on precisely this issue.

What makes their signage different?  For a start the signs are very beautiful consisting mostly of hand-drawn illustrations of wildlife.  This overcomes any language differences, which is a major consideration in our municipality.

Apart from looking good, the signs are also educational, not authoritarian.  They would benefit every age group & be a boon for local schools, especially placed along the Cooks River.  Just yesterday I saw a group of around 40 high school students having an outdoor lesson at the Cooks River.  With these signs, the teachers would be thanking Marrickville Council.

From the website – Well crafted, nicely illustrated and engagingly worded interpretive nature signs …… can turn an encounter in nature from a superficial stroll in a park into a learning experience with wonder at every step; an outdoors experience which has the capacity to greatly enrich lives.

Compliance and warning signs are another means for imparting the values of nature and our responsibilities for ensuring their preservation. Properly worded and illustrated, these signs can instill that sense of responsibility and a willingness to comply.”

My preference would be for no signs, but clearly this is not working. If people don’t know about the nature that surrounds them, they don’t see it & they don’t consider it.  A river is just water, not habitat for a range of wildlife.  A park is just a place for them to play, not the only home wildlife has.

A great example is the mud nests built by the Welcome Swallows in the underside of a roof of a kiosk.  Some people, when they look upwards, see the strange-looking structures & not knowing what they are become afraid so they throw stones to knock the structures down.  If they knew these were the nests of tiny little birds & maybe they have eggs or chicks in them, I’d bet they would not be destroyed.  We have to try at the very least to preserve habitat.

The same with fishing line – if there were photos of the damage done to bird’s feet, the casual discarding of fishing line would likely stop too.  Instead of the authoritarian signs in the picnic kiosks, educational signs could be placed there that explain why Council wants people to not do certain actions. If it is linked to the wildlife, maybe the people will see it in a different light.

Canterbury Council has a couple of very nice signs at Cup & Saucer Creek Wetlands.  One shows a photo of what the creek used to look like before it was concreted & I doubt there is a person alive who doesn’t gasp at the loss of what was an incredibly beautiful place when they look at the photo on this sign.  Another sign explains the function & purpose of the wetland.  The outcome is that there is no vandalism, at least none that I have seen.  Not even the signs have been tagged.  I think people generally respect what they understand & if they can see that it benefits them.

These type of signs would be also be helpful in the areas of the LGA where nature imposes itself & perhaps annoys people.  The signs that say something like, ‘Ibis are a Protected Species. Please notify us if you see a dead one’ doesn’t quite get people to understand the benefits these birds bring to the area, nor does it do anything to overcome the attitude that Ibis are feral rats that should be exterminated, said to me just this afternoon.

‘Redtail Interpretive Nature Signs’ is more than signs.  If you are interested in Australian native birds reading the website is like diving into a wonderful pond of information. That it is written in a personal manner with stories, rather than ‘rat-a-tat-tat – these are the facts’ makes for very engaging reading.  The illustrations of birds are enough to keep me enthralled.   Their signs are a different way of dealing with inappropriate behaviour by using beauty & education.

Mud nests built by Welcome Swallows. This photo shows last year’s destroyed nests, plus new ones built over winter. The one on the far left looks family-sized to me.