LARGO — Young nature lovers can now have their birthday parties free of charge at the McGough Nature Park. But there's a catch: no presents.
The program, called the Natural Gift Birthday Party, waives the park rental fee of $50 for parties as long as the lucky boy or girl asks party guests to make a donation to the park in lieu of buying gifts.
It's the brainchild of city parks superintendent Greg Brown. He said he came up with the idea from Ocean Unger of Clearwater and Averi Miller of Largo, second-graders at Country Day School who are big owl enthusiasts. They had guests at their joint birthday party at a skating rink donate to the birds of prey program at McGough instead of buying them gifts.
"The girls really created it, I just followed their lead," Brown said. "I just thought it was a wonderful, selfless act … it was the perfect idea."
Donations that exceed $80 earn the partiers a "wild birthday party" in which park handlers bring out a bird to join the celebration. If the birthday boy or girl raises more than $250, the child is invited back to the park to spend time with a bird of his or her choice.
Brown said he thinks the Natural Gift Birthday Party will catch on as more people are exposed to the idea.
Averi's mother, Amanda Miller, said she will encourage friends to take advantage of the program. "It's better for us, too, as parents," she said. "The children don't really need to have such excess."
And, Miller said, the experience teaches the children to give back.
Having reached the $250 threshold, Averi and Ocean two weeks ago got to help clean the enclosure of Matilda, a barred owl, and learn to feed her, said Pat Edmond, president of Friends of Largo Nature Parks.
The birds of prey program houses six rescued birds — five owls and a hawk — all of which were injured and remain too disabled to be released into the wild. If it were not for the birds of prey program, Edmond said, the birds would have been euthanized.
The girls' donation went toward food for the birds, Edmond said, which costs about $300 a month, their biggest expense.
Donations do not have to go to the birds of prey and instead can go into the park's general fund.
Josh Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155. Follow @JSolomonTIMES on Twitter.