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Birding becomes an unexpected balm for the soul in UVM professor’s new book

A woman in a brown puffy coat speaks to students surrounding her on a gravel path with a lake in the background.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Trish O'Kane talks to her college students in her "Birding to Change the World" course about bufflehead ducks, which they saw feeding near the Colchester Causeway. O'Kane's students meet with fourth and fifth graders at Flynn Elementary School in Burlington each week to explore nature and look for birds.

On a sunny afternoon in mid-February, college students and impatient elementary kids bust out of a side door to Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, ready to head to a nearby nature area. Then, the group stops in their tracks, looking up to the sky.

Two bald eagles fly low overhead, circling as they begin to land in a nearby neighborhood. The college students and their co-explorers — fourth and fifth grade after-school students — yell and point. College students hand binoculars to the elementary kids. Trish O’Kane, a professor at University of Vermont and purveyor of Flynn Elementary’s Birding Club, calls for all who might miss the spectacle.

A group of people stands outside a brick school building, looking up to a blue sky. One of them smiles and points.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Trish O'Kane and her students spot two bald eagles in the sky outside Flynn Elementary School in Burlington.

After the raptors land out of sight, the group walks toward Derway Island Natural Area. O’Kane doesn’t lead the group. The children do. Some branch off to play near the beach of Lake Champlain. Some students look through binoculars, identifying waterfowl and small birds in trees near the path.

Birding Club at Flynn Elementary is the result of a years-long experiment. O’Kane’s new memoir “Birding to Change the World,” traces O’Kane’s journey to becoming an educator and creating the birding program of the same name.

Finding solace in the birds

The 61-year-old grew up in southern California and was a journalist for 15 years — covering unrest in Central America and then researching hate crimes in Alabama.

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans a month after O’Kane had moved there to teach journalism at Loyola University. She and her husband evacuated. Their New Orleans neighborhood — and new home — was flooded, and their belongings destroyed. Some of their neighbors had drowned. It was in the wake of this devastation that O’Kane started noticing the birds.

A cardinal. A murmuration of house sparrows. Flocks of bright green wild parrots. Ducks at Audubon Park. The more O’Kane noticed them, the closer she got to beginning her second life.

A cover of a book with illustrations of different types of birds reads: "Birding to Change the World A Memoir - Trish O'Kane."
Trish O'Kane's new memoir shares its name with her class and birding program.

After finishing the spring semester at Loyola, O’Kane — still recovering from the emotional toll of Katrina as well as the decline of her father’s health from cancer — moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to begin working toward a Ph.D in environmental studies.

“And then I discovered the birds,” O’Kane said. “And I discovered people who love the birds, and then, discovered there's this wetland up here that's in trouble.”

The wetland was inside Warner Park, a more than 200-acre park and natural area in Madison. The park and the people and animals who used it — especially the birds — would become the center of O’Kane’s dissertation.

She also helped lead her neighbors in a push to save the wetland from a yearly firework show that rained heavy metals and toxic perchlorate into its ecosystem. This work, and the “human flock” O’Kane found while doing it, is what would knit the pieces of her soul back together.

Warner Park would also be the setting for O’Kane’s research into catbird migrations, the convergence of birding and O’Kane’s work toward social justice, and poignant conversations with Mr. M, a Black neighbor who helped O’Kane understand the nuances of being in nature as a person of color.

In the book, O’Kane writes how interactions like these deepened her understanding of social justice through nature. Interwoven throughout the memoir is lots of bird science — magnificent ways that humans have learned from avians.

Trish O’Kane is still learning from the birds. She’s devoted herself to helping others learn from the birds, too.

Breaking down the hierarchy

O’Kane and the undergrads in her “Birding to Change the World” college class — which meets at the beginning of each week without the elementary students — walked down an icy trail near Lake Champlain not just to identify and discuss birds, but to learn how to instill that knowledge into fourth and fifth grade elementary students.

That can mean a lot of different things. They point a scope at a group of bufflehead ducks, what O’Kane refers to as a “beginner duck” because they’re usually close to the shore and easy to spot, with their black-and-white markings. O'Kane says they’d be good ducks to point out to the kids.

Then there’s the tiny chickadee, a bird that frequents many backyards. The class practices the call, first whistling the two notes, then breaking it down into a mnemonic that might be a bit easier for the kids. They all sing, “Cheeseburger!”

There are many ways to talk about the pairing between each elementary and college student, but O’Kane prefers the term “co-explorers.” This is because, rather than “mentor” or “teacher,” the term points to an equal relationship, rather than subscribing to a teacher-student hierarchy.

O’Kane sees assumptions around this relationship play out each semester. She has her college students submit written assignments each week reflecting on their time with the kids. This is where she often starts to see the change of thinking around what it means to teach while also applying ideas around social justice.

“They write that one of the first things that happens in their brain is that assumption of, ‘Oh, I'm the teacher, I'm the mentor, I'm going to educate this little person about birds.’ That quickly goes out the window. And that's great. That's exactly what I want to happen,” O’Kane said.

After their college-only class, the students will work on homework assignments from their co-explorers, which they’ll turn in at the beginning of Birding Club.

“It is challenging the kind of control-and-command dynamic that is pretty traditional in the world of education … This shifts that dynamic and says, ‘How do you build relationships with students, by listening to them, by having them give you work to do, and you coming back and showing them that you're going to follow through?’”
Tom Flanagan, superintendent of the Burlington School District

According to Tom Flanagan, the Burlington School District superintendent — whose two twin daughters are in the Birding Club program — this homework is just one of the many ways that O’Kane helps foster a reciprocal relationship between each co-explorer pair.

“It is challenging the kind of control-and-command dynamic that is pretty traditional in the world of education … This shifts that dynamic and says, ‘How do you build relationships with students, by listening to them, by having them give you work to do, and you coming back and showing them that you're going to follow through?’” Flanagan said.

Social justice through birding

Social and environmental justice is woven into the core of “Birding to Change the World” — the book, the course and the co-explorers program.

O’Kane’s college students apply for the class and undergo background checks before they can work with the kids at Burlington’s largest elementary school. They learn about the pedagogy of Paulo Freire, who said students should be liberated rather than oppressed. There are also biases to break down.

“A lot of them have a lot of experience working with children. And they also have white savior syndrome. I do not say that in a negative way. I have it, too — the way we were brought up in our culture,” O’Kane said. “And they may not even be aware of it, and then they come to my class and they sign up for it, thinking they're gonna go help a poor kid in a poor neighborhood. Well, they're not poor kids. It's not a poor neighborhood. And actually, that kid's going to help you learn a lot of stuff about life.”

Every winter and fall semester, O’Kane talks with her college students about winter clothes. This came, as O’Kane writes in the book, after a group of co-explorers in Wisconsin experienced the consequences of getting cotton socks wet in freezing weather.

“The Great Wet Sock Meltdown” prompted her college students to ask her why kids didn’t wear appropriate clothing. O'Kane realized she had to explain the privilege of being able to afford cold weather clothing — thick socks, parkas, down jackets, thermal wool underwear — and how access to winter clothing also affects access to the outdoors.

“I want to open their eyes, open their ears and open their hearts. And when I say open their eyes, I don’t mean just to the birds. Because if you start noticing what’s around you — like birds — you can start noticing a lot of other things, too, that we really urgently need to notice.”
Trish O'Kane

Climate change is an inherent threat to nature access, especially for children and the future generations. And the birds are just one lens into that, O’Kane said.

“I want to open their eyes, open their ears and open their hearts,” O’Kane said. “And when I say open their eyes, I don’t mean just to the birds. Because if you start noticing what’s around you — like birds — you can start noticing a lot of other things, too, that we really urgently need to notice.”

It’s easy to get caught up in fear and anxiety when thinking about climate change and its consequences. But O’Kane’s book provides a blueprint for how community action can result in real change, locally.

More from Vermont Edition: Environmentalist Bill McKibben discusses climate anxiety and overcoming inaction

“Start where you are, with the skills you have, doing something you love. But start doing something. We owe it to our children.”

Aidan Anderson and his 5th-grade co-explorer, Dom, explore the woods of the Durway Island Natural Area.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Aidan Anderson and his fifth grade co-explorer, Dom, explore the woods of the Derway Island Natural Area.

Building ‘a human flock’

It’s not just species identification that happens during the group's two hours at Derway Natural Area each week. Kids climb trees. They look at fungi on fallen limbs and collect cool-looking sticks. They run through the woods, screaming and relishing the freedom.

“The way that they just can run free is kind of remarkable, because even when they're outside at school, there are a lot of rules that they still have to follow,” said Abbie Israel, the former site director for after-school program at Flynn Elementary. “It's been really cool to see some of the kids who are really shy or who, like, never go outside — they go home, they go to school … they play video games — all of a sudden become stewards of their community and their environment in a way that they didn't expect, and that I wouldn't have expected from those kids.”

O’Kane and other adults involved with the program have continued to see transformations like these happen. In O’Kane’s memoir, she wrote of students who seemingly had no interest in birding suddenly have a plethora of bird facts under their belt. She had another shy student in Madison who spoke up to the mayor, and later a parks commissioner, asking them not to cut down old trees after the loss of a big, special tree in Warner Park.

The fourth and fifth graders at Flynn say Birding Club helps them feel grounded after a day inside a school. And, having a co-explorer to learn with and talk to is invaluable.

“I guess it’s just cool to have someone who’s, like, your person no matter what,” said Melodie, a fifth grader at Flynn.

Rosie, a fifth grader, said that in addition to expanding the list of birds she’s able to identify and recognize, Birding Club has given her an understanding of what the warming climate means for the future.

“I think it made me more aware about climate change. How like, we’re affecting the environment and how cool birds actually are, because there’s so many different kinds. Especially for gulls.”

An elementary school student and a college student look through binoculars on a sunny day.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
June Laub, a student in O'Kane's UVM course, looks through binoculars with her fourth grade co-explorer, Skyler.

A vast body of research affirms the importance of outdoor time in natural spaces to kids’ mental health and development. More exposure to green spaces was shown to improve bone mineral density in children. A review of studies focusing on outdoor learning found that it improved children's interpersonal skills, well-being, resilience and self-esteem.

This research reflects what O’Kane has seen with the kids that come through her program. The children are quite aware of the benefits as well. Skyler, a fourth grader, said that exploring the 148-acre nature preserve and the surrounding area can be a balm.

“If you have a hard day, it’s, like, really nice to get out of [school] and just kind of clear your mind and talk to your mentors and go outside and just get a nice little walk,” she said.

Rather than replicating her birding program in more places, O’Kane wants to advocate for changes in policy nationwide that ensure kids have access to time outside.

A woman sits at the edge of path next to an icy lake, looking through binoculars.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Trish O'Kane looks through binoculars at a group of bufflehead ducks feeding on the edge of Lake Champlain in Colchester.

An unending source of joy

Trish O’Kane owes a lot to the birds. She calls them her “unpaid teaching assistants” — co-conspirators in turning her students onto birding, lifting their hearts and inspiring them to create positive change.

She points out how the two eagles students’ spotted outside of Flynn — though they weren’t the first eagles the kids had seen — had them clamoring for binoculars and gasping in awe.

“We have seen eagles, but the eagles taught us. You know, ‘We're here. We're miraculous. And please look at us and pay attention,’” O’Kane said.

The birds, she continued, “not only get the kids interested and excited about science and using binoculars and learning. They give us all great hope. And they help us every Wednesday afternoon forget what is happening in the world. So they give us a respite, a mental and emotional respite. ”

O’Kane hopes that, through her book, others will let the birds lift their spirits and inspire them to create change.

“For me, this joy and the birds and the children — it's our renewable, sustainable fuel for our souls,” O’Kane said. “And so what is your fuel going to be for this movement to save the planet? It's got to have some joy, it's got to have a lot of love. … That’s what keeps me going.”

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Corrected: March 20, 2024 at 9:28 AM EDT
The original version of this story included a misspelling of "Derway Island Natural Area." The story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling.
Zoe McDonald is a digital producer in Vermont Public’s newsroom. Previously, she served as the multimedia news producer for WBHM, central Alabama’s local public radio station. Before she discovered her love for public media, she created content for brands like Insider, Southern Living and Health. She graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi in 2017. Zoe enjoys reading, drinking tea, trying new recipes and hiking with her dog.