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The drive-thru outside the McDonald's on Colorado Boulevard just south of Bruce Randolph Avenue is a typical fast-food express lane in every way but one: Planted next to the squawking speaker box, in the shadow of the Golden Arches, is a strange green sign.
"Welcome to Our Backyard Habitat," it reads. "A Special Place for Wildlife."
The sign is staking out turf for any creature seeking refuge in the midst of mulch littered with wind-blown cigarette butts, stale french fries and half-empty ketchup packets. Hundreds of cars and trucks creep by every day, spewing exhaust fumes. Most drivers pay the marker no mind while they contemplate combo meals.
"McDonald's corporation in cooperation with the National Wildlife Federation has developed a 'Backyard Wildlife Habitat,'" the sign continues. "This habitat provides food, water, cover, and places for wildlife to raise their young."
The curious fast-food connoisseur would notice a duplicate sign protruding from a second sprinkling of wood chips in front of the high glass windows surrounding the children's playland on the opposite side of the restaurant. Here, at least, is some cover, in the form of scraggly elderberry bushes. There is also an empty stone birdbath and a bird feeder, which until late last week was also empty -- not even a sesame seed from a bun.
"I don't know why they put those signs there," says Jorge, the restaurant's day-shift manager. "There are no wild animals living in our parking lot."
Jorge hasn't seen a four-legged creature stirring -- not even a rat -- in this special place for weeks. Nonetheless, the little oasis is endorsed and certified by the National Wildlife Federation as part of its thirty-year-old Backyard Habitat program. McDonald's has fifty such areas nationwide, but franchisee Geta Asfaw says his is the only one in Colorado.
"Widlife and burgers and fries -- it's a good partnership!" says Asfaw, who owns five other McDonald's in the Denver area. "Sometimes people say to me it's just bark and weeds, but I tell them, 'No, it's a natural habitat, like a little forest in the city, you know?'"
There's been a McDonald's in Asfaw's Colorado Boulevard location since the late 1970s. He bought the franchise in 1995, then razed the existing restaurant, built a new McDonald's replete with playland and backyard habitat, and reopened in 1998.
At that time, McDonald's Corporation, eager to launder its soiled environmental image, had just begun pushing franchise owners to participate in the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat program, which encourages schools, homeowners and businesses to create mini-habitats for small wildlife within larger urban environments.
"The benefit to McDonald's is purely good PR," says Steve Torbit, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Region field office. "Not only the local store, but the corporation as a whole gets lots of positive press for thinking about something other than just selling a burger."
The flagship McDonald's habitat is a four-acre reserve adjacent to a Ronald McDonald House in Cleveland, Ohio. The National Wildlife Federation dedicated that site -- the first of its kind for McDonald's -- as the 20,000th NWF-certified Backyard Habitat in the country. The sprawling gardens, opened in 1997, boast a waterfall, ornamental pear and crabapple trees, and meandering pathways shielded by vines and hedges.
By comparison, the habitat outside Asfaw's McDonald's looks like it was landscaped by a couple of crystal-meth smokers on a midnight Home Depot binge. Nevertheless, it's certified. "There are certain criteria they have to meet," says Torbit, who has never visited the backyard habitat in Denver. "You basically fill out a form and submit the form with some photos, and it's reviewed by our people in D.C. If they concur, you get your certification, and you can put up a sign and be official.
"The whole idea is that people are becoming less and less connected with the outdoors and less and less connected with wildlife," he says." The backyard habitats are a way to educate and reconnect people with local wildlife in their own backyards, whether it's a corporation or an individual. We're not expecting everybody to attract deer and mountain lions, but maybe hummingbirds and butterflies."
Asfaw says his habitat draws finches, bluebirds and robins in the summer, but "in the winter, it's just frozen."
Last week, with temperatures in the seventies, the bird feeder in the McDonald's habitat was filled for the first time in months. Late one afternoon, a solitary songbird nibbled seeds before flitting perilously close to the 25-foot-high playland windows. (Bird-watching guides strongly recommend placing bird feeders well away from any windows -- let alone gigantic ones -- to prevent accidental kills.) On the other side of the glass, a dozen children scampered through brightly colored plastic tubes like hamsters in Habitrails. There was no doubt which artificial habitat was the better lure.