About our 75th Anniversary

2024 marks 75 years of the Norman Bird Sanctuary. Years before environmental movements received national recognition and Congress passed the Clean Air and Wilderness Acts, Mabel Norman Cerio dedicated her Middletown farm as a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. In addition to being a protected space for animals, Mabel also envisioned that this place would be a space “for the enjoyment of lovers of nature and the public generally.” Her passion for the environment led to the founding of the Norman Bird Sanctuary and the protection of over 300 acres of wildlife habitat on Aquidneck Island.

Since our founding 75 years ago, the Norman Bird Sanctuary has grown to include additional acres of critical wildlife habitat including grassland, marsh, dune and woodland. Generations of families have found community at the Norman Bird Sanctuary and joined us for field trips, Summer Camp, and Harvest Fair. Ten Executive Directors have steered our organization to the place we stand today and positioned us to continue evolving and making an impact for another 75 years.

Below, you can explore a calendar of celebratory and commemorative programming, learn more about our history, and discover decades of archival materials in our forthcoming digital archive.

75th Anniversary Programming

Sightlines Lecture Series: Exploring Art & Science

January through October
Select Thursday Evenings, 5pm to 7pm
Register Here

Join us in honoring the 75th Anniversary of the Norman Bird Sanctuary across seven evening lectures in 2024. A broad array of speakers will explore the disciplines celebrated by our founder, Mabel Norman Cerio: art, culture, ornithology, and conservation.

Learn more about the range of speakers and their topics below.

Wednesday Walks with Matt Largess: History of Rhode Island Trees

January through November
Upcoming: May 15th, July 17th, September 11th, November 13th
3:30 to 4:30pm
Free, No Registration Required 

Join nationally known, International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist Matthew “Twig” Largess, “The Voice of the Forest,” for a 75th-Anniversary Wednesday Walk Series focused on New England forest history. Matt will guide attendees through the Sanctuary’s trail network while offering an engaging overview of trees across our campus and broader Rhode Island tree history.

Can’t make it to a walk? Head to our blog to read Matt’s latest debrief on identified trees, new discoveries, and special reflections from the walk.

75th Anniversary Kick-Off at Ragged Island

February 7, 2024
6pm to 7:30pm
Free, Register

Come celebrate with us at Ragged Island Brewing Co. as we kick-off our 75th Anniversary year and unveil a very special surprise. We promise we won’t leave you hanging

Together with NBS staff, Board, friends, and neighbors – the rock of our community – we’ll toast to years past and raise a glass to all there is to come.

We would like to thank our generous sponsor Ragged Island Brewing Company! 10% of beverage sales at this event will go toward the Norman Bird Sanctuary mission.

Artist Residency with Nina Elder

March 18 through April 8, 2024
Free*, Register

Award-winning artist Nina Elder will join The Norman Bird Sanctuary in March/April 2024 to develop an interdisciplinary project, Sedimental. After decades of creating work that addresses overwhelming phenomena and landscapes of loss in the American West, Nina will turn to processes of accumulation and erosion on the East Coast. While at NBS, Nina will explore the coastal sand formations of the Sanctuary’s Third Beach property, observing how sand holds the essence of much larger geologic entities; moving, migratory, jumbled together.

Community members will have ample opportunities to engage with Nina and her work, including at Nina’s March 21st Sightlines lecture on her site-specific and artistic process, as well as at a culminating, public art workshop on Third Beach.

*Nina Elder’s lecture and residency are made possible in part through funding support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Council seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders. Nina Elder’s lecture is FREE to all attendees. Registration is required.

Paint Paradise: Plein Air Day

Saturday, April 20th
Open Working Time: 9am to 4pm, Reception and Juried Benefit Show: 5:30pm to 7:30pm
Free for artists, Reception: $20 for Members, $35 for Non-Members, Register

Join us for Paint Paradise, a special 75th anniversary plein air day! Honor Paradise Valley’s rich cultural heritage and the artistic legacy of our founder Mabel Norman Cerio, while enjoying 300 acres of beautiful open studio space as the spring colors emerge.

Attendees will have free access to spaces across our campus ideal for art-making, along with optional tutorials with area artists and complimentary breakfast and lunch generously provided by Kitchen Companion Catering.

Bring friends (art clubs and groups welcome!) and immerse yourself in the peace of the Sanctuary’s diverse geography, rich in wetland, grassland, beach, ponds, and forest. All ages, mediums, and experience levels welcome. Artists must supply their own materials.

Paint Paradise will end with an optional reception and juried benefit show & sale from 5:30 to 7:30pm. This portion of the day will be a ticketed, public event. Attendance is free for participating artists. Artists can elect to sell their work at this event, with 25% of sales going to the Sanctuary in support of its programs.” Thanks to generous support from Mr. John Grosvenor and Ms. Cheryl Hackett, there will be a special prize for one winner.

We would like to thank our generous sponsors, Mr. John Grosvenor & Ms. Cheryl Hackett and Kitchen Companion Catering!

41st Anniversary Birds & Breakfast

Saturday, May 11th
8am to 12pm

Celebrate spring and join the Norman Bird Sanctuary for the 41st Annual Birds & Breakfast! Gather your flock for a buffet breakfast, guided bird walks, Hawk Talks, crafts for kids, and live music.

Rhode Island BioBlitz

Friday, June 7th and Saturday, June 8th
All day

In collaboration with the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, the Norman Bird Sanctuary will host the 25th iteration of BioBlitz. Hundreds of volunteers will work in teams over 24 hours to tally as many species of animals and plants as they can across the Sanctuary’s diverse, multi-habitat property.

Participants will discover the critical biodiversity right here in Middletown, survey species found across our campus to improve conservation and stewardship efforts, and connect with a wide community of field biologists, naturalists, and others curious about the environment.

Read more about the exciting partnership. For interested students, consider attending the free Wildlife Conservation Workshop on March 9th, a precursor to Bioblitz led by talented NBS teacher naturalists.

Beach Bash

Wednesday, July 24th
5pm to 7pm
Registration will open Spring/Summer 2024

Family and friends of all ages will gather on Third Beach for this beloved summer celebration featuring games, live music, s’mores, bonfires, and a special 75th anniversary twist this year!

50th Anniversary Harvest Fair

Saturday, October 5th and Sunday, October 6th
All day
Registration will open Summer 2024

Join us for an historic weekend as we celebrate 50 years of this award-winning, fall favorite on Aquidneck Island. Challenge friends to a sack race, compete in the Home & Garden competition, peruse the Crafter’s Tent, enjoy live music, and so much more during this weekend of festivities for the whole family!

Learn More About our Sightlines Lecture Series

Join us in honoring the 75th Anniversary of the Norman Bird Sanctuary across seven evening lectures in 2024. A broad array of speakers will explore the disciplines celebrated by our founder, Mabel Norman Cerio: art, culture, ornithology, and conservation.

Meet the Speakers

Kaity Ryan, Executive Director of Norman Bird Sanctuary

Paradise Valley Then and Now
Thursday, January 25th

Join us in kicking off our 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Sightlines, and the beginning of our 75th Anniversary year of celebration, with Kaity Ryan, Executive Director of the Norman Bird Sanctuary.
Middletown’s Paradise Valley is one of the most culturally significant landscapes in Rhode Island. In addition to its ties to the Hudson River School painters, Transcendentalist writers, and noted philosopher Bishop George Berkeley, Paradise is also important in the context of modern conservation efforts on Aquidneck Island. Kaity will share an historical overview of the cultural influences connected to the present-day Norman Bird Sanctuary along with a look into Mabel Norman Cerio’s legacy and how it has impacted Paradise Valley.

About the Speaker: 

Kaity Ryan is the 10th Executive Director of the Norman Bird Sanctuary. A certified architectural historian and member of the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, Kaity brings more than fifteen years of experience working at the intersection of preservation, education, conservation, and the arts.

Jennifer Bissonnette, Director of RISD Nature Lab

Biodesign: What Combining Science, Art, Design, and an Eco-Centric Approach Can Offer the World
Thursday, February 22nd

Join us for the second installment of our 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Sightlines, with Jennifer Bissonnette, Director of the Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design. Jennifer, whose work merges natural sciences knowledge and methods with art/design thinking, will explore the design philosophies of biomimicry (the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes) and discuss the critical role art and design can play in ensuring a future of sustainable coexistence.

About the Speaker: 

Jennifer Bissonnette is an ecologist and marine scientist whose work engages techniques of transdisciplinary inquiry to merge natural sciences knowledge, techniques and methods of inquiry with art and design thinking and studio practices. With a BS in biology from Eckerd College and a PhD in marine science from the College of William and Mary/Virginia Institute of Marine Science, she focuses broadly on human-nature connections and systems thinking to help innovate design solutions to environmental and societal challenges.

Nina Elder, Norman Bird Sanctuary Artist-in-Residence

Sedimental: What Moves Us?
Thursday, March 21st

Join us for the third installment of our 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Sightlines, with award-winning artist and researcher, Nina Elder, as she begins her Artist Residency at NBS. Nina’s lecture will detail her scientific and artistic methods, as well as her site-specific project, Sedimental, an experimental, multi-media exploration of coastal sand formation and erosion processes as they relate to human resilience.
Nina Elder’s residency will close with a free, participatory art installation on Third Beach on Saturday, April 6th. We highly encourage attendance at both the lecture and the installation, to experience and participate in the full breadth of Nina’s work on campus.
Nina’s lecture is made possible in part through funding support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Council seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders. Nina’s lecture is FREE to all attendees. Registration is required.

About the Speaker: 

Artist and researcher Nina Elder creates projects that reveal humanity’s dependence on, and interruption of, the natural world. With a focus on changing cultures and ecologies, Nina advocates for collaboration, fostering relationships between institutions, artists, scientists and diverse communities. She is the co-founder of the Wheelhouse Institute, a women’s climate leadership initiative. Nina lectures as a visiting artist/scholar at universities, develops publicly engaged programs, and consults with organizations that seek to grow through interdisciplinary programming. Nina’s research has been supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Rauschenberg Foundation award for Arts & Activism, the Pollock Krasner Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation.

Amy Montague, Director of Museum of American Bird Art

Join us for the fourth installment of our 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Sightlines, with Amy Montague, Director of the Museum of American Bird Art.
Amy will discuss some of the treasured artworks from Mass Audubon’s collection at the Museum of American Bird Art, explore bird art spanning several centuries, and hear the stories of people connected with its creation and preservation. Why was it made? What does it tell us about the relationship of humans to birds? Whose passion for it ensured that it was preserved?

About the Speaker: 

Amy Montague has served as the Executive Director of Massachusetts Audubon’s Museum of American Bird Art for over thirty years. Amy holds a BA in History from Wellesley College and a Certificate of Museum Studies from Harvard Extension School. As MABA Director, Amy manages the world’s only collection dedicated solely to American art inspired by birds–a collection which ranges from John James Audubon engravings to Andy Warhol pop art prints–and educates the public on a centuries’-old story of changing relationships between humans and the natural world.

Amy Montague’s lecture is generously supported by Mr. John Grosvenor & Ms. Cheryl Hackett.

Robyn Bailey, NestWatch Project Leader at Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Hidden Heroes:  The Role of Citizen Scientists in Studies of Avian Reproduction
Thursday, May 30th 

Join us for the fifth installment of our 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Sightlines, with Robyn Bailey, NestWatch Project Leader at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Citizen scientists worldwide contribute invaluable bird observations to long-term databases, aiding scientists in understanding the impact of environmental changes on avian populations. Robyn’s lecture will specifically explore the crucial role of citizen scientists in the study of North America’s nesting birds, with a look back at the past 60 years.

About the Speaker: 

Robyn Bailey manages the research, education, and communication initiatives for NestWatch, the Cornell Lab’s citizen-science project focused on nesting birds. The Cornell Lab has been monitoring nesting birds’ reproductive success since the 1960s, and this long-term database is the nation’s richest source of information on avian reproductive biology. A large focal area of the project is nest boxes, and how best to provide them and support the birds which use them. Through NestWatch, Robyn’s research and writing focuses on small things we can all do to help birds every day.

Dr. Amy Johnson, Conservation Biologist and Program Director at Smithsonian

Bringing Back Biodiversity: Stories of Conservation Farming
Thursday, September 19th

Join us for the sixth installment of our 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Sightlines, with Dr. Amy Johnson, Program Director and Conservation Biologist at Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
Dr. Johnson integrates citizen science to help conduct ecological research on more than 80,000 acres of private lands in Northern Virginia through Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes program. Her current research focuses on exploring the responses of grassland bird communities to native grassland restoration and regenerative grazing. Join Dr. Johnson to learn more about establishing and managing native grasslands, tracking the migratory connectivity of declining grassland birds, and understanding motivations behind conservation behaviors on private lands.

About the Speaker: 

Dr. Amy Johnson is a Conservation Biologist and Program Director of Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL). In this role, Johnson leads a team that cultivates a dynamic network of private landowners, citizen scientists, NGO’s, state agencies and scientists to collectively investigate the impacts of conservation management and land use on biodiversity. VWL research activities occur almost entirely on privately-owned working lands, demonstrating the importance of multi-faceted collaborations for acquiring the knowledge needed to move conservation forward in human-dominated landscapes.

Silvermoon LaRose, Assistant Director of Tomaquag Museum

Ohkehteau Unnehtongquatash, Plant Stories
Thursday, October 17th 

Join us for the seventh and final installment of our 75th Anniversary Lecture Series, Sightlines, with Silvermoon LaRose, Assistant Director of the Tomaquag Museum.
A member of the Narragansett Tribe, as well as an artist, educator, and conservation advocate who has worked in tribal communities for over 20 years, Silvermoon works at the intersection of artistic and natural ecosystems, fostering Indigenous empowerment through education, community building and the sharing of cultural knowledge and traditional arts.
In her Sightlines lecture, Silvermoon will explore the enduring connections between these two ecosystems, the value of traditional ecological knowledge, and the stories that connect us to the gifts of our ecology.

About the Speaker: 

Silvermoon Mars LaRose is a member of the Narragansett Tribe and the Assistant Director of the Tomaquag Museum. She is dedicated to the sharing of cultural education and the preservation of cultural belongings held in trust for future generations. Silvermoon has worked in tribal communities for over 20 years, serving in the areas of health and human services, education, and humanities.

A Brief History of Norman Bird Sanctuary

250 Million Years Ago

The Purgatory Formation, or pudding stone, forms through erosion of ancient sedimentation. Formations like Hanging Rock are stretched and fractured by geologic forces.

18,000 Years Ago

As the last great continental glaciers scrape and extend over North America, layers of soil are removed to expose Hanging Rock Ridge.

8,500 Years Ago

Long before the European colonists arrived at Aquidneck Island, the site of today's Paradise Farm was home to Native peoples, specifically the Wampanoag tribe, as evidenced by the shell midden on the Quarry Trail.


Pilgrims arrive in New England.


Edward Smith and others, purchase a large coastal area of Middletown, which included the Norman Bird Sanctuary, then called "Sachuest Farm”.

Circa 1750

The farmhouse is built, possibly by Thomas Weaver. For the next century, most of the property is a “saltwater” farm. Sheep graze on the ridge slopes, salt marsh hay is harvested in the marshes, and mixed crops are grown.


Benjamin Gardiner acquires the property from Philip Smith. Sheep grazing shifts toward dairy, grain, barley, and Indian corn production. Benjamin Gardiner is interred at his family burial plot—one of the three cemeteries at NBS.


Samuel Allen purchases the farm from Benjamin Gardiner’s heirs, and converts it from an owner-worked farm, to a tenant farm.

Circa 1860

The barn is built.


Mabel Norman is born in Newport, the last of nine children to Abbie and George Norman.

Late 1800s-Early 1900s

Mabel spends her childhood at the Norman family home, Belair Cottage in Newport, before leaving first to attend high school in New York City and later to study art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


George Norman purchases Paradise Farm primarily to secure the water rights for the Newport Water Works which significantly alters the topography of Paradise Valley. The family continues to lease land for farming.


Paradise Farm comprises “125 tilled acres, 101 permanent pastures and meadows, vineyards, and orchards. 60 mown acres yielded 70 tons of hay.” The farm produces barley, oats, potatoes, and maintains 70 fruit trees.


George Norman sells Newport Waterworks to the City of Newport.

Late 1800s

John La Farge and other artists paint extensively throughout Paradise Valley. Hanging Rock is celebrated in paintings and verse, and Paradise becomes a prolific site for early Impressionist and American landscape painters.


George Norman dies.


Mabel Norman purchases Paradise Farm from the estate of her brother George H. Norman Jr. for $17,500. A barn relocated to the property is used as her painting studio, and she spends her summers living at the farm.


Spurred by a lifelong passion for wildlife and now the sole owner of Paradise Farm, Mabel begins researching how to establish a bird sanctuary.

January 1917

Mabel marries Dr. George Cerio, an Italian doctor whom she met in Italy while working and traveling as an artist.

Mid 1900s-Late 1930s

Mabel and George are year-round residents on the Isle of Capri, hosting friends and family at their residence, "Saracen Tower," until the start of World War II.


Following the start of the war, Mabel and George begin to divide their time between Italy and Paradise Farm in Middletown, RI.

November 1943

George Cerio dies.

November 1949

NBS is established at the bequest of Mabel Norman Cerio, to maintain the land "for the propagation, preservation, and protection of birds, and where birds and bird life may be observed, studied, taught and enjoyed by lovers of nature..."


A Sanctuary Committee is formed of “interested sanctuary neighbors…with a common concern for the land and the preservation of its natural values.”


NBS gains its first Executive Director (and first employee), James Baird, a revered ornithologist and conservation advocate.


The inaugural NBS
summer camp delivers environmental education programming to 180 students.


NBS introduces its membership program.


First Annual Harvest Fair


Nearly 200 years after its construction, the barn is renovated by architect George Warren.


First Annual Birds & Breakfast


The Sanctuary celebrates its 50th anniversary.


The campus and existing buildings including the administrative building, barn, classrooms, pump house, garages, and tool shed are extensively renovated.


NBS purchases 23 acres of Third Beach, completing the original package owned by the Norman family. The acreage links NBS to the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge and ensures public road and beach access.


Smith-Gardiner-Norman Farm (Paradise Farm) is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Paradise Farmhouse, Mabel Norman's summer home, is extensively renovated and becomes available to the public as a rental.


NBS celebrates its 75th anniversary, as well as the 50th year of Harvest Fair and the 54th year of Summer Camp.

Explore decades of archival materials in our growing Digital Archive!


Explore Here

Do you have photos, stories, or other historic materials from your time at the Sanctuary?

Share your NBS memories and contribute to our archival collection. Our seventy-five year legacy would not be possible without the support of our beloved community. Thank you for sharing with us!

Become a 75th Anniversary Sponsor

We are excited to invite our community to support the Norman Bird Sanctuary in marking our milestone 75th Anniversary in 2024. Individuals, businesses, and Sanctuary supporters can explore sponsorship opportunities at multiple levels.