Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Excerpted from the August 16, 2014, New York Times

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.
On Aug. 1, 2005, I moved to New Orleans 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. After a few weeks I realized that instead of starting each morning with the newspaper, 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.
CreditDadu Shin
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. 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. 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 marveled over a sandhill crane family — mom, dad and teenager — landing just 50 yards away to graze. We conduct our weekly nature study in Warner Park, a place that has a bird island, just like Audubon Park. 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.
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.
Trish O’Kane is a doctoral candidate in environmental studies at the Gaylord Nelson Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article. Watching birds from our deck is educational and enjoyable. Recently we heard a high pitched sound sort of a combination of screech and whistle. I could not see the birds (two sounds coming from different directions). I saw a larger bird quickly fly through the trees but couldn't identify it. These sound came every day. Once while on the deck I heard a deeper but similar sound. It reminded me of the bird sounds you could hear in the background of old western movies and TV shows...that of hawks. Soon a large brown hawk appeared in an open spot on the locust tree at the back of our lot. I assume the higher pitched sound was coming from a recent offspring learning the ropes. A few days later I was at a golf course new to me and heard several of these sounds...and saw dozens of these hawks. It was fun to know I had made the connection a few days before. So educational and entertaining are our feathered friends.