Student Trish O'Kane writes of resilience through birding in New York Times essay

August 19, 2014

In an essay published August 17 in The New York Times, Nelson Institute doctoral student Trish O'Kane shares how the avian life of New Orleans, and then Madison, taught her and her students a lesson in resilience.

At the Nelson Institute, O'Kane founded and helps to lead a popular service-learning course, Birding to Change the World, that pairs UW-Madison and Sherman Middle School students in a nature exploration and mentorship program.

UW-Madison and Nelson Institute graduate student Trish O'Kane
Trish O'Kane

The environmental studies capstone course has two components: Juniors and seniors from UW-Madison study birds in the natural world during a two-hour indoor class on campus every Wednesday morning. Then, in the afternoon, they meet students at Sherman Middle School, on Madison's Northeast side, and spend two hours at nearby Warner Park.

The class was created as part of a larger Nelson Institute initiative, supported by the late Charlotte Zieve, a Nelson donor and alumna, and others to address diversity, justice and the future of environmental work.

Below is an excerpt from O'Kane's essay. View the full article on

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.