Harney County

Migratory Bird Festival

Burns, Oregon

April 6 - 9, 2017

Kiwanis started the BirdFest in 1981.

John Scharff managed the Malheur Refuge over 34 years

Agriculture contributing to birding habitat

The Harney County Migratory Bird Festival

held in honor of John Scharff

The Bird Festival began in 1981 as a Kiwanis sponsored event. With the abundance of birds using the Harney Basin in the spring, Joe Hardwick convinced members of the Kiwanis to host a bird festival that would draw visitors from outside of the Harney Basin. 

During the first years of the festival the event was held at the Grange Hall on the corner of Highway 205 and Highway 78. This all volunteer event was named in honor of John Scharff after several years. 

In the early 1990’s the bird festival began shifting its focus from self-guided tours to organized tours led by area bird experts. It was at this time that the Refuge, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service took on a more active role in the festival. Organization of the festival was still directed by volunteers, but the tours were led by agency personnel in agency vehicles.

As the festival outgrew the capacity of the dedicated group of volunteer organizers, the Bird Festival Committee began exploring other options for oversight. The Harney County Chamber of Commerce was approached about hosting the event. The Chamber Board of Directors decided to take on the Bird Festival as one of their sponsored events. 

The Chamber of Commerce receives a portion of the revenue from the festival to offset expenses they accrue during the planning and implementation of the festival. A portion of the profit from the festival is available locally as a grant for wildlife interpretation, educational projects and other community projects associated with the festival.

Who was John Scharff?

John and Florence ScharffJohn Scharff began his career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He initially arrived at the refuge as the assistant manager in 1935 and was promoted to refuge manager in 1937. John was the first on-site manager of the refuge. From 1908 until John’s promotion to manager the refuge was managed from Portland with only on-site law enforcement. With the addition of the Blitzen Valley to the refuge in 1935, management was transferred to the field and John became the first manager to live on the refuge.

When John Scharff was promoted to refuge superintendent in 1937 he faced the daunting challenge of keeping Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees at three camps busy making improvements in the Blitzen Valley and constructing buildings, but at the same time, overseeing management of this vast, tremendous natural resource.  While the CCC constructed much of the infrastructure present today, Scharff and his staff built many of the features we see today on the landscape. 

Major projects undertaken by the staff under Scharff’s direction included: 
  • Construction of Krumbo Reservoir for impounding irrigation water
  • Construction of Moon Reservoir for impounding irrigation water
  • Construction of the museum at Refuge Headquarters
  • Battling the increasingly destructive invasion of non-native carp on the refuge after their introduction to the Silvies River in the 1940s
  • The reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the refuge from Red Rocks Lake, Montana
  • Construction of numerous wetlands in the Blitzen Valley
  • The construction of the Malheur Job Corps Center on the refuge (now used as the Malheur Field Station)
  • Increased use of the refuge by educational and conservation groups, and recreationalists.

John and his wife Florence lived on the refuge at refuge headquarters until John retired. John served as Refuge Manager for over 34 years until he retired at age 70. Scharff maintains the longest tenure for an on- site manager in the Refuge System and he was awarded the Department of Interior’s Distinguish Service Award in 1971.

Florence is credited with the abundance of flowers and flowering shrubs that grew at refuge headquarters for decades. She planted many of the perennials growing today at headquarters with members of a gardening club from Burns. Florence and John lived in the building that now serves as the visitor center and office. 

Projects Funded by the Bird Festival

  • Interpretive panels at the Narrows Pullout on Malheur Refuge
  • Production of a wildlife coloring book for a senior project
  • Purchase and installation of the great blue heron sculpture on the corner of Hines Blvd and Grand street.
  • Coordination of the Wildlife Viewing Trail construction on the old railroad grade running through town
  • Purchase of the protective floor cover for the high school gymnasium
  • Purchase of tables and chairs for the new community center
  • Purchase of large projection screens


Why do the birds come here?

Map of the Pacific FlywayThe Harney Basin is located on the Pacific Flyway – one of four major north-south migratory routes (Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways) in North America.

The Pacific Flyway extends from Alaska/Siberia to Patagonia.  Each year migratory birds travel some or all of this distance in the spring and in the fall, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or travelling to overwintering sites.

Most waterfowl using the Harney Basin in the spring do not return through this area in the fall because of typically dry conditions, instead these birds move southward through the Klamath Falls area.