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October 4, 2012

Oklahoma State professor pays homage to the birds

STILLWATER, Okla. — What draws millions of viewers into programs on Animal Planet and David Attenborough specials also plays out in a part of the animal world that many may not expect — the world of birds.

And it’s that idea, among others, that inspires ornithologist and Oklahoma State University Assistant Professor Tim O’Connell.

“Those thrilling nature scenes play out on the screen for us and that’s really exciting,” he said. “That’s exciting enough to keep millions and millions of people watching on a Sunday night or whatever. One of the things that I try to impress upon people is that stuff is happening all around us every single day if we just tune into it. Those same life and death struggles are happening all around.”

For example, when someone hears a beautiful bird song outside their window during spring, that song may actually be a warning to other birds not to encroach on their territory.

O’Connell recently spoke to members of the Payne County Audubon Society at Stillwater Public Library. O’Connell, a member of the group for nine years, spoke about techniques related to bird calls, how to make the sounds and in what situation to use them.

His interest in birds and the outside world began at a young age.

“That all started from growing up on a farm in upstate New York,” he said. “I like to tell people that in 1975, my dad got us the Internet. And the 1975 version of the Internet was the World Book Encyclopedia and on those cold, snowy afternoons in the middle of winter in upstate New York, I would pull a random volume off the shelf and just sort of sit there and surf the net, basically.”

At that time, his interest was animals and dinosaurs. However, when he got to the letter B, he started going over the 20-page spread on birds. He recognized many of them that he’d seen on his farm. The 9-year-old decided to search for more species.

“Early on, it was more dinosaurs than anything else that interested me intellectually,” he said. “But, I would spend a lot of time outside looking at fossils, catching snakes, just taking long walks in the woods. It wasn’t necessarily geared toward birding.”

To be a dinosaur biologist, a person had to be a geologist. O’Connell said he had no interest in geology. As he grew older and attended Cornell University, he became more exposed to other bird watchers.

“I thought I was the only person in the world who was interested in birds; just me and Roger Tory Peterson who wrote the field guide,” O’Connell said. “So, some people who will start young like I did, will start young because they have a scout group or some local group takes them under their wing and takes them out on field trips and teaches them to be a good birder. I was doing all that on my own.”

At Cornell, he began to see the benefit of linking up with other people who knew good observation spots and had tips.

“There’s different societies and community groups devoted to the study of birds at all levels,” he said. “The Payne County Audubon Society is a local group that is mostly involved in birding, which is the sport of going out to find birds. We also have scientific societies at the state level. We’ve got one called the Oklahoma Ornithological Society. I’ve been president of both of these things. They do some things that are similar, but they are operating at totally different scales.”

O’Connell said it’s important for these groups at varying levels to work together and share data.

In many ways, O’Connell got his chance to study dinosaurs.

“Birds are dinosaurs,” he said. “They’re not just related to dinosaurs. We understand now. They are dinosaurs. So, when I see that little chickadee and maybe I’ve caught that little chickadee in a net and I’m studying it, it’s this cute little ball of feathers, but you strip away the feathers and what you’ve got is a little reptile with dagger-like talons and a spear of a beak and they’re really exciting organisms.”

O’Connell used his children as an example of his goal. He said he doesn’t want to push them to be ornithologists as they grow up, but he does want to instill a basic education of birds in them so they may know the differences between a cardinal, a bluejay and other common birds.

“The thing that I personally enjoy about it is that there’s so much to learn about every species,” he said.

Being able to expose others to something new is special to O’Connell.

“If we were taking a bird walk, one thing that we would be focusing on, especially for a beginner, is I want to show you something that you’ve never seen before,” he said. “It’s probably something that’s around here a lot, but you’ve never noticed it.”

He said they may take a couple hours to search for multiple species and even have a chance to get a close view or handle a bird.

“You see the same expression on a person’s face either the first time they hold a bird or get bitten by a cardinal or see a bird that up close,” he said. “It’s just this child-like wonder.”

For those interested in joining a bird watch, the Payne County Audubon Society will be taking a field trip at 7:30 a.m. Saturday.

The group will begin at the Meridian Technology Center ponds and move to Sanborn Lake.

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