"Blackbird singing in the dead of night, takes these broken wings and learn to fly." -- Paul McCartney

Once wounded young birds -- the girls of Project Return -- are taken in and cared for, healed and set free, to then fly free and soar toward their dreams.

This is why Project Return's 18th annual Birdhouse Stroll on Thursday evening was such a special event, according to Susie Basler, the agency's director. The bird-themed art projects, which will be auctioned off to raise funds for Project Return, embody the marvel of the work done by the Westport-based group, which was established in 1986.

"It's a wonderful metaphor for what we do here -- creating a safe haven," said Basler, "helping the young girls, slash, `birds,' helping them get stronger and healthier until they're ready to go out on their own -- fly off and be big birds."

People strolling through downtown Thursday night could inspect more than 160 creative "birdhouses" fashioned by 130 artists, all of which have an avian theme. Along with birdhouses, bird-related jewelry, paintings, sculptures and much more were on display in 63 local stores and restaurants.

"It's a fun night," said Amy Clemens, manager of L.F. on Main Street. "It's a really great event, and it's for a good cause ... We've been doing it for years now."

Clemens' store featured a piece by artist Lewis Cohen of Ossining, N.Y., called "Rare Forty-Ninah Minah from Chinah" -- one of the unique sculpture creations that organizers strove to match with the business type of the hosting store or dining spot.

"It's that act of love, of making a gift," Basler said of the artists' donations, "and we receive it and we love it and we cherish it, and we choose the right store to display it in."

The Nike Running store, for instance, displayed a birdhouse made of old bicycle parts that was assembled by Lewis Shaffer, while other businesses had art pieces that shared colors and sometimes subtler themes that related to their trade.

"It really prepares Main Street for spring," said Jackie Brown, assistant manager at West Elm, which hosted the event's launch party before strolling officially began.

"Being a part of Main Street, we wanted to be a part of the community and this is a great way to help a great cause," she said.

The birdhouse artwork will stay on display downtown until Saturday, April 6, when it will be auctioned by Project Return at its annual gala fundraiser at the Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton. Last year, more than $100,000 was raised by the agency, which not only offers a residential program for seven girls at a time, but has an after-school program in six high schools around the region.

"We have been to practically all of the birdhouse auctions, and many of the strolls," said Jim Goodrich of Westport.

He and his wife, Luisa Francoeur, said they're committed to support the residential programs hosted by several social-service organizations in Westport, including Project Return.

"I'm proud that Westport is the home for all these places," Francoeur said.