Birding to Change the World
by Trish O'Kane
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Pub Date 27 Feb 2024 | Archive Date 23 Apr 2024
In this uplifting memoir, a professor and activist shares what birds can teach us about life, social change, and protecting the environment.
Trish O’Kane never expected to be a birder. She was a world-traveled journalist with no science background who surprised herself in her forties by falling in love with birds. Cut to seventeen years later, and O’Kane is a highly qualified ornithologist who teaches at the University of Vermont and is the creator of the hugely popular course Birding to Change the World, on which this book is based.
It was a lone red cardinal and a bumptious cast of house sparrows that changed everything for O’Kane after Hurricane Katrina shattered her life in New Orleans. Watching birds thrive throughout the devastated city became her salvation—making her laugh, helping her deal with the trauma, and setting her on a whole new path. Soon O’Kane found herself pursuing a natural sciences PhD in Wisconsin, where she became a full-on bird obsessive—logging hours and hours in a stunningly diverse urban park, binoculars glued to her eyes, filling field notebooks with observations of bird doings and dramas, and volunteering in a bird nursery at a wildlife rehabilitation center.
But it wasn’t until that park, her birdwatching haven, was threatened with development that O’Kane became an environmental activist—taking her cues from the birds. She began to avianize: to adapt for human use the birds’ strategies for defending their nests and offspring. Like the birds, she and her fellow human park lovers harnessed the power of raised voices and collective action to save the park.
Each chapter in Birding to Change the World features at least one species of bird that O’Kane has learned from. She recounts the astonishing science of bird life, including migration and survival strategies, along with many moving and compelling stories about birds and the humans who are fascinated by them. Over the course of this heartfelt memoir, O’Kane shows what birds can teach us—and how that education can be a transformative force for social change.