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In ‘Birding to Change the World,’ birds are the key to social change

a portrait of a white woman with gray and brown shoulder-length hair smiling at the camera
Jim Carrier
Dr. Trish O'Kane shares her journey of birding and environmental activism in a new memoir, "Birding to Change the World."

You know that joy you feel when you see a bird? For educator Dr. Trish O’ Kane, becoming a bird obsessive in Madison, Wisconsin, brought light to a dark time in life and helped her find community and propel social change. When development threatened the city park where her beloved birds lived, O’Kane, a lifelong activist, and her neighbors flocked together to save their home.

In her memoir, Birding to Change the World, O’Kane shares her journey and what we can learn from our feathered friends. Currently, she teaches a class under the same name at the University of Vermont. The course pairs her college ornithology students as co-explorers with elementary students in an after-school program, a model she developed while pursuing her PhD in environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

O’Kane thinks fondly of Wisconsin as her birding home. “Wisconsin is where I really learned how to bust down that wall in my brain that separates us from nature,” she says. “I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

O’Kane will discuss her new book at 6 p.m. on March 13 at the Riverside Urban Ecology Center, in partnership with Boswell Books.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

At the end of the book, you write that you really had to live this book before you could start writing it. So what did it look like when was it time to start this project?

a book jacket has illustrations of birds around the border, with the title BIRDING TO CHANGE THE WORLD at center
Courtesy of Ecco

I moved to New Orleans in 2005 to teach journalism at Loyola. I was a human rights investigative journalist for 10 years in Central America, and then I worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. So my whole background was civil and human rights. Not birds.

We moved to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, one month after we moved there. I hadn't really thought about environmental issues before that to tell you the truth. I had never thought about birds. I didn't dislike them; I just never really noticed them. And then Katrina hit.

I didn't start writing the book then, but I really started living the book then. Because I was so distraught, depressed and angry with myself for how I lived. That really was the beginning of my journey, standing in the ruins of my home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and saying, 'What am I doing?' I had no idea. I just wanted to live near the lake, so I could walk there. I wasn't thinking about what would happen. And I wasn't thinking about all the poisons I used in my home that ended up in the water.

What I really appreciate about the book is how insistent you are that nature is not separate from us. Like, we're a part of it. It's not a national park. It's the hill that kids roll down, and it's the bush in your front yard that has catbirds in it. Why is that frame of mind so crucial? 

Well, again, it starts in New Orleans because I did have that separation in my brain. When I stood in the ruins of my home, nature literally — the water was in our home for three weeks — nature was in my living room, my kitchen, my bathroom. That's when the wall in my brain began to break down.

I decided I wanted to learn more about that. So I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to get a PhD in environmental studies. Then the wall in my brain began to really fall down because we moved across the street from Madison's Warner Park, the largest urban park [in Madison], which is half-fully developed. I don't even like that word, but built up, right? Buildings, sports lights, pavement. The other half is about 100 acres of wild, scruffy stuff.

I noticed that animals were everywhere. They weren't just on the wild, scruffy side. The red-tailed hawks were flying around the baseball stadium during baseball games. The fox was taking a nap on a Sunday afternoon on the tennis court. The animals, and going into this park every day as part of my nature therapy healing after Katrina, [they] taught me that this barrier is false. That this separation is totally false.

a flock of geese stand on a pond's grassy banks.
City of Madison Parks Division
Geese enjoying a Madison city park, another example of the "totally false" separation between humans and nature.

There's this moment when you're first looking at the plan for development in Warner Park. You imagine migrating birds flying over the park, wondering where their home went. And you write that you really knew how that feels because you saw this aerial photo of your home after Katrina. It's a really powerful moment of intra-species empathy. I'm wondering how you think we can stretch that muscle?

That's really the goal of my book. First of all, I was very depressed after Katrina. Then I got to Madison. I was still depressed but starting to get better. I started going into this park every day across the street. I took ornithology and I started doing my homework in the park. The minute I set foot in that park, it was better than drugs.

Then, I discovered the city plan to build up the park even further — all this crazy stuff was going to destroy all the birds’ homes. That's when I said, “Wait a minute. I've been birding in here for two years, and the birds have literally saved my life. What am I going to do about this?”

So for me, intra-species empathy came from deep grief and healing through nature — which has been proven in over a hundred public health studies, that nature can help mental health and physical health.

I didn't know what to do. But I talked to neighbors, and we got together and we stopped the concretization of Warner Park.

That empathy motors this civic engagement, your activism, over many years. The idea of "birding to change the world" becomes very literal when we learn that you've had students who have protested and written op-eds. What is it about birds that motors civic engagement? 

They're accessible. They're beautiful. They're funny. They're everywhere. You know, I've been involved in [activism] for 20, 30 years in different issues, since college. I don't think rage and fear are sustainable fuels. I've burned out, many people burned out. I discovered that birds, for me, were a sustainable fuel for my soul. And renewable! Because I’d go to public meetings at night, and we'd fight and I'd be discouraged.

But I knew the next morning I could go back into Warner Park. And the catbirds would be there or the hermit thrushes would be there, or the brown thrasher would be singing in the morning, or the great blue heron was going to fly over Sled Hill. The birds were always there for me. It wasn't just a motor, they were there.

a hand holds a small gray bird carefully at the legs
National Zoo
O'Kane studied the migratory paths of catbirds like this one in Madison's Warner Park.

As someone who was new to academia, specifically science academia, did you get any pushback from people that so much of your research was coming from a place of community organizing and activism? 

Yes. I was lucky. Well, it wasn't luck. When I was sitting in New Orleans, six months after Katrina, saying, “I can't stay here. What am I going to do?” I googled “activist professor environment.” Up pops Dr. Jack Kloppenburg, an environmental sociologist, born and raised in Milwaukee, who taught at that time at UW-Madison.

He became one of my dearest friends. I chose him [as a PhD advisor] because he had an activist background; he worked in the community gardening movement. He is one of the founders of the whole idea of the foodshed and the local food movement.

I did not think that I was going to do this for my PhD. I was just trying to do it as a citizen. Then I realized, I can't be a full-time PhD student and be a researcher at the university full-time and do full-time organizing.

I was going to give up. I had a talk scheduled with Jack. Three years in, I still didn't know what I was going to write my dissertation about. I was dreading it. I just thought, you know what, I'm just going to tell this guy the whole truth. I did and he said, “This is your dissertation!” He laid out how I had to work against my own biases, examine them and analyze them.

My husband and I formed this environmental defense group to defend Warner Park. Everybody in that group, all neighbors, they became part of my dissertation research. They helped me do surveys, and I analyzed what our group did. I used academic literature analyzing social movements. It was a combination of social movement literature, ornithology and avian ecology and environmental education.

Throughout the book, you point out all these different bird behaviors and how we can learn from them. What bird behaviors would you love to see humans adopt?

I start the book with one of those behaviors called murmuration. Starlings have this amazing behavior, and [you’ve seen it] if you've seen them in cities swirling around, doing this prayer dance.

A murmuration of starlings.
Caroline Legg
A murmuration of starlings.

There’s been an amazing 18-year study in Rome done by Dr. Andrea Cavagna. He wanted to know, how did the starlings turn together? How do they communicate, so they don't all crash into each other? There could be millions of them doing it.

He spent 18 years on top of a museum in downtown Rome at sunset with 3D photography, photographing the starlings as they came swirling into their roosts, and discovered that one starling turns — usually because it sees a predator like a hawk coming. Seven starlings right around it — they see out of their peripheral vision that bird turning — and they turn with it. Every one of those birds affects seven more. It's a physics law of seven.

I'd like to see us emulate that behavior. Now, Dr. Cavagna pointed out to me that that's a romantic notion. But we could have a murmuration. If we could see climate change as a predator coming for us right now, and start to make that turn, we could change history.

I believe in the power of the small. I tell my students, you don't have to impact hundreds or thousands of people. Let's start with seven.


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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