Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary
Bringing nature and people together
By Sonia Duggan
Just a short drive away, every day is Earth Day at the Heard Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern McKinney where 289 acres of flora and fauna are dedicated to conservation, education and preservation efforts.
In the 54 years since the Heard opened, this natural oasis has served as a teaching tool for children and adults alike who visit to walk the trails, check out the museum, or participate in one of the many programs offered.
Founded by McKinney philanthropist Bessie Heard in 1967 at 80 years old, the sanctuary was envisioned by the founder as a place “where future generations could visit to experience nature.”
Acting as the steward of Bessie’s vision for the last 14 years is Executive Director Sy Shahid, a successful “serial” entrepreneur who claims he had a “nose for business, not museums” when he took over his wife’s position on the Heard board when she left to complete her doctorate. Shahid served on the board for six years, including three years as president, prior to accepting the executive director position.
“I got here, and I never left — 20 years later,” he says laughing.
Shahid’s business acumen has proven helpful in his efforts to make the private museum/sanctuary profitable, and at the same time ensure the nonprofit stays true to its original mission.
Shahid said he’s thankful Bessie made sure the Heard was protected in its bylaws.
“This property can never not be a wildlife sanctuary,” he said. “Even if the Heard Museum ceases to exist, it must be given to another nonprofit to continue operations as a wildlife sanctuary. It cannot be sold for millions. It has to stay where it is, so that’s good protection. The oasis will be retained, which it has been for 54 years, and hopefully another 54 years.”
Habitats, conservation, restoration
One of Bessie’s major concerns, and possibly the inspiration for the Heard back in the 60s, was the amount of concrete that was encroaching on wildlife in McKinney. Today, even Bessie would probably be surprised to see how the Heard has become landlocked, but at the same time she would be proud of the fact that the 289 acres has evolved into a prime sanctuary in North Texas for variety of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
The popularity of McKinney and influx of people has impacted wildlife and vegetation in many ways as more homes and fences are built and chemicals and trash are dumped. The Heard property, however, is unbound allowing animals the freedom to travel Wilson Creek, essentially a 10-mile highway along the northern boundary, to go back and forth to Lake Lavon.
“This is the only place animals can come and feel safe,” he said. “As long as you provide the security and food source for the animals they are going to stick around, or at least come back to it when they need to.”
The eastern side of the sanctuary has been left “inaccessible to humans to keep it pristine and available for animals – especially deer,” says Shahid, who often sees families of deer every week.
“So, that’s telling me these deer have to go somewhere to hide and have young ones, so our 289 acres has truly become a wildlife sanctuary.”
Because the property is quite expansive, Shahid says it can support all the native animals such as bobcats, raccoons, possums, coyotes and deer, plus all different types of birds.
“Of course, because of the wetlands it has become a great teaching tool to show people that if you do something for conservation, you’ll get the benefit of it because you see the animal kingdoms thrive in local nature.”
Shahid talks about the three ecosystems needed to support all animal species: wetlands for the birds, prairie lands for some of the mammals and birds and forest land for mammals like deer and raccoon which allows them to have a sanctuary to live and be protected.
Of the five habitats maintained at the Heard, the upland forest encompasses a very small portion of the property.
Bottomland forests are found along rivers and streams and broad floodplains. In the case of the Heard, “it is found around our wetlands and our Heron Slough and along Wilson Creek,” states the website.
Another habitat is the white rock escarpment, a limestone rock layer made up of microfossils, present throughout the grounds. The website indicates it is especially visible along “Old Baldy” on the Hoot Owl Trail and along the ridge where the Science Resource Center is built.
At the sanctuary, a 50-acre wetland habitat area was created 31 years ago within the floodplain of Wilson Creek, creating a habitat for wetland species. The wetlands serve as a natural filtration system of sorts thanks to phytoplankton, aquatic plants and more. According to the Heard, over 50% of North America’s wetlands have been destroyed by farming, housing and retail development.
Because there is less one percent of the Blackland Prairie habitat—the largest endangered ecosystem— remaining, Shahid said the Heard is making a concerted effort “to restore our meadows and take care of the problems we have.”
Biome restoration has been ongoing at the Heard for the last three years. Staff and volunteers, including those from the Native Plant Society of Collin County and the Texas Master Naturalists Blackland Prairie Chapter, have been instrumental in the efforts.
“So, we constantly have to make sure that we remove the invasive plants out of our meadows and reintroduce some of the grass and native flowers back,” he said.
According to the Heard, prairie land is a vital habitat needed for prairie plant and wildlife species, and if it is not remediated, it will return to a low-diversity upland forest.
Because of the preservation efforts to restore prairie grass, Shahid says the Heard, along with Blackland Prairie Chapter, Connemara Meadow Nature Preserve, The Audubon Society and the Native Plant Society, are all trying to coordinate efforts – expertise, equipment and materials, “because we are all trying to band together to really accomplish what we set out to do to preserve our native land.”
Shahid said The Audubon Society is heavily involved at the Heard, “by providing volunteers and the resources (whether money, labor or expertise) to really help us to preserve the prairie.”
Trails, museum, more
The sanctuary is the number one draw in the city of McKinney, says Shahid, with about 90,000-100,000 people visiting each year.
“There’s no other venue in McKinney that draws that kind of people,” he said. “More than two thirds are not McKinney residents.”
It has become what Shahid calls a “people sanctuary” rather than a wildlife sanctuary, especially in 2020. Many first-time visitors and season ticket holders sought refuge at the Heard last year to escape the confines of their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The four major fundraising events were canceled last year; the Native Plant Sale, Date Night, Halloween at the Heard and Holidays at the Heard, which did affect them. “However, Shahid said, “on the flip side what COVID provided was an increase in admission and membership.”
The seven walking trails are perfect for walkers of all ages who can handle varied terrain. The trails range from the ½ mile Hoot Owl Trail to the 1.25-mile Sycamore Trail. If you want to visit the wetlands, there is a portion of the 1-mile Wood Duck Trail, Shahid’s personal favorite, he says “because that’s the only chance you get to walk on water and see the animals that are in the water.”
Opportunities abound for children at the Heard. The Pioneer Village, a playhouse scale replica typical of 1800s settlements, is available to explore outdoors. In addition, there are animals to observe living in outdoor and indoor habitats, and the annual butterfly exhibit. Inside, the museum offers multiple exhibits including a Fossil Tortoise Exhibit, Living Lab, Native Texas Snakes, Shell Room, Mosasaur Exhibit and an extensive group of archived collections, many from Bessie’s personal collection.
The calendar is starting to fill up again as events are on the schedule for spring. The popular Wetland Canoe Trails, Night Hikes, Nature Talks and Zip Line Day are back on a monthly basis. Scouts have an opportunity to sign up for classes to earn badges for nature-based activities and there are classrooms for teaching opportunities for preschool-age kids, homeschoolers and summer campers.
For adults who flock to nature to enjoy birding activities at the Heard, there are plenty. The nonprofit is a steward of bird conservation since its founding in 1967. The oldest bird banding group in the state of Texas, the Heard Bird Banders, are very active, capturing and banding more than 25,000 birds since 1978.
Visitors can participate in planned birding activities or to simply watch or take photos.
Over 220 bird species have been observed on the property. Shahid said Heard staff observe twice yearly migrations and the property is a popular stop for laying eggs and for breeding.
Opportunities to serve
The sanctuary is a refuge not only for the wildlife, but for the many people who visit each year, and for the volunteers who give their time and talent.
With a fulltime staff of 30, the executive director said the Heard could not open its doors without its extensive roster of volunteers, saying, “They are the backbone of what we do.”
Shahid says different groups provide different services. The Native Plant Society helps on a weekly basis with the native plant gardens, the annual plant sale, teaching the 8-week Master Naturalists classes and habitat restoration.
The Audubon Society and the Blackland Prairie Master Naturalists also partner with the Heard to assist staff in conservation efforts.
Other volunteer opportunities include animal care, butterfly garden and butterfly house exhibit, rebuilding the boardwalk, trail and sanctuary maintenance and handiwork projects.
“We have a group of volunteers that have been coming every Friday and Saturday since August, Shahid said. “And they are working to restore that (Wood Duck Trail) boardwalk access.”
Youth from ages 10-15 can volunteer as well as adults. Scout projects, student service opportunities, group service projects and mandated service hours are welcome.
“Volunteers are ambassadors of the museum,” Shahid said. “When you’re volunteering at the Heard, you’re paying it forward.”
While it’s a challenge to maintain and sustain the Heard Sanctuary, the executive director said it’s a good opportunity to promote conservation and get people of all ages involved.
“One thing I am heartened by is that more and more people are aware of the problem,” he said. “If we can educate the next generation to create that awareness, I think it will stay with them for life.”