Even if you do not watch the video below, please read the the essay below.
It is one of the most beautifully crafted and moving essays on birdwatching that I have read. The essay was printed in the New York Times on 8/16/2014 and brought to my attention by Dr. Jim Whatley. I urge everyone to read it.
For best viewing quality, click on the "notched" wheel at the bottom of the video screen and set to 1080(HD)
What the Sparrows Told Me by Trish O'Kane
To be honest, I never cared about birds. Then, almost nine years ago, Hurricane Katrina swallowed half the city of New Orleans, and something began to change.
I had been a human rights investigative journalist in Central America. For 10 years I studied Homo sapiens and the terrible things we do. In Guatemala, I researched massacres committed by the United States-backed regime of the dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. When foreign ecologists came to do research, I thought they were insensitive and just plain weird — well-fed, binoculared foreigners counting animals in countries where people were still trying to count their dead.
On Aug. 1, 2005, I moved to New Orleans — along with my husband and two unruly dogs — to teach journalism at Loyola University. Twenty-eight days later, Katrina came. Along with the rest of the devastation, the storm submerged our new home in more than 11 feet of water. We had evacuated to Alabama 36 hours before the storm, to stay with friends. Four months later, in January 2006, I rented a room in a dry area — in the city’s Carrollton neighborhood — and returned to teach.
That first morning back I woke to something strange and rare in New Orleans — silence. I lay in bed and listened. Then I heard clicking — cardinals — soon joined by an army of beeping bulldozers.
I took a cup of coffee and sat on the back stoop. About a dozen small brown sparrows clung to a few spindly trees. Where did they go during the hurricane? How did they survive?
Much of the city was still a stinking, rotting mess. Thousands of homes had been destroyed. The levees weren’t fixed. It became hard to teach journalism in a city where the daily news was about asbestos in the air from demolitions, carcinogenic benzene in the soil from oil spills and warnings about the next monster hurricane season. After a few weeks I realized that instead of starting each morning with the newspaper — a die-hard news junkie’s habit— we needed to focus on something beautiful, something positive, something alive. My father had been told that he had terminal cancer 40 days after Katrina. He didn’t know a Mugimaki flycatcher from a Hudsonian godwit. But during his last days he loved to watch the birds come to his feeders. If watching birds could help my father die, maybe it could help me live and teach.
I bought two bird feeders. Each morning I sat on that back stoop and watched those sparrows. Instead of wondering what was going to happen to the city, to the Gulf Coast, to the planet, I started wondering why one sparrow was hogging all the seed. I started thinking about their resilience, their pluck, their focus on immediate needs. If they couldn’t find food, they went somewhere else. If they lost a nest, they built another. They had no time or energy for grief. They clung to the fence in raggedy lines heckling one another like drunken revelers on Bourbon Street. Their sparring made me laugh.
My “sparrow show” got me through the mornings and Audubon Park, home and nesting grounds of many migrating birds and ducks, got me through the afternoons. The park, which faces Loyola University, was once a French sugar plantation and is named after John James Audubon, who studied many Louisiana birds. I started eating lunch and holding office hours and classes there.
My students and I sat on benches facing Bird Island, a large rookery. Huge elephant ears twisted slowly on the muddy banks as we chewed on sandwiches and watched the ducks vacuuming up duckweed, the world’s tiniest flowering plant. Some students liked the park so much that they started going on their own. One, an aspiring sportswriter, fell in love the day he sat on a park bench and looked down to find a mallard pair inspecting his suede sneakers. He began visiting this pair every day. “And so the days passed,” he wrote in a paper, “watching them swim, closing my eyes but hearing their webbed stomps and chattering beaks. I began to nab slices of bread my roommate bought to make salami sandwiches he never ate and feed it to the two of them.” He began researching the ducks’ migration routes. Toward the end of the semester on a class walk, he shared his findings. “These ducks face a difficult and dangerous journey, every year,” he said, pointing at Bird Island. “And they come back here. They’re like us — tough, like Katrina evacuees. We were scattered all over but we made it back home.”
I realized, then, that the birds had become our teachers.
Today, nearly a decade later, I teach basic ornithology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In my environmental justice course, “Birding to Change the World,” I use avians to show how we are all connected to one another, humans and nonhumans. As part of the course, I pair my undergraduates with local middle school students in a mentoring program called Nature Explorers.
Our middle school kids are from one of Madison’s economically poorest and culturally richest neighborhoods. Many of their families are from Latin America. Together our mixed flock of 20 undergraduates and 45 kids has watched two red-tailed hawks mate for three seconds — on Valentine’s Day. We’ve marveled over a sandhill crane family — mom, dad and teenager — landing just 50 yards away to graze. We conduct this weekly nature study in Warner Park, a place that has a bird island, just like Audubon Park. For my doctoral research, my ornithology adviser and I placed minuscule geolocation backpacks on the park’s gray catbirds to find out where they migrate. Our preliminary data strongly suggests that these catbirds winter in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. I want to show our Nature Explorer kids that the catbirds in their park are both Madisonian and Central American, that they know no borders.
I still find the birding and conservation biology world to be startlingly white and privileged. I wrestle with how to weave my former life as a human rights journalist with this new passion. Now I am one of those binoculared people wearing expensive gear. It feels strange to study birds migrating south to Central America while thousands of children from those countries are migrating north to escape the violence and poverty created by our failed foreign policies and drug wars. Some of those kids are the grandchildren of the people in the mass graves I peered into 20 years ago.
I do not know, yet, how to reconcile these ugly realities. But I do know, after several years of teaching environmental studies, that many of my students are terrified of the future. The week she graduated, Monica Nigon, a 22-year-old, wrote: “I’ve come to the point where I simply throw my hands up in the air and picture our alien successors scooping through our charred remains, wondering how we could have messed up so badly.”
And so on the first day of class I always tell my new students the Katrina sparrow story. I tell them that the birds are a gift to help them get through each day, a way to enjoy the world while we change it so that young people, everywhere, have a chance. I tell them that when the world is caving in on them, just walk outside, listen for a minute, find that cardinal, that woodpecker, that pesky crow, and see what they’re up to. That tiny act, that five-minute pause, won’t save the planet, I tell them, but it might save you, one bird at a time.