Mary Jo Ballator

Mary Jo Ballator with her devoted companion Cookie, a rescue African Grey Parrot. Photo courtesy Gordon Lam

The story of Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary began in August of 2002, when birder, naturalist, and gardener Mary Jo Ballator invited attendees of the Southwest Wings Birding Festival to visit her garden and feeding station in hopes of seeing a rare visitor from Mexico: a Plain-capped Starthroat. When Mary Jo opened a one-unit bed and breakfast the next spring, she followed southeastern Arizona’s long tradition of hospitality to birders by welcoming day visitors as well as overnight guests to enjoy her feeding station and garden. Over the next 16 years, her avian clientele, including the most accessible Lucifer Hummingbirds in the U.S., attracted thousands of birders and photographers from around the world. Mary Jo’s generous spirit, gracious hospitality, and intimate knowledge of her wild neighbors made her a beloved figure in the birding community.

When Mary Jo passed away unexpectedly in late May 2019, grief-stricken friends and admirers began asking what would become of her home and sanctuary. While her family sorted through the estate, local volunteers maintained the feeding station and garden and acted as hosts for visiting birders through the busy summer season. One of the volunteers started a GoFundMe campaign to support the short-term needs of keeping the feeders filled but also in hopes of purchasing the property on behalf of a nonprofit organization. That fundraising effort had fallen far short of its larger goal when the family announced that the property would soon be offered for sale.

Just as hopes for permanent protection were fading, Dr. Mario Molina contacted the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory offering to donate the full asking price of the property so that it could remain protected and open to the public. With this extraordinarily generous donation and the blessings of Mary Jo’s family, SABO assumed ownership of the property on November 1, 2019, to be managed as a permanent sanctuary for birds, other wildlife, and the people who love them.

This memorial panel has been installed on the back porch of Mary Jo’s former home: A panel acknowledging the Molinas’ generosity is on the wall near the entrance: