A final summer of bird banding with Oakleigh Thorne

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

May 7—A handful of teenagers sits inside a dark conference room, eyes fixed on a window that faces a garden. They remain still and quiet to not scare away their targets, which fly around and only occasionally land in the seed-covered traps laid for them.

Oakleigh Thorne II walks through the door, wearing a green Thorne Nature Experience hat and a smile. Now, the students can do what they came for — banding some birds.

Thorne is the founder and namesake of Thorne Nature Experience, which started in 1954 and works to foster a love of the outdoors through environmental education. At both bird banding club in the spring and bird banding camp in the summer, he shows teens how to trap, identify and band the birds of Boulder.

"Bird banding is such a wonderful, hands-on thing for kids to do," Thorne said. "They love doing it, and they get really good at it."

This year, however, the club's activities are tinged with bittersweetness. After 35 years of running the program and over 80 years of personal experience, it's Thorne's last summer of bird banding with the nonprofit.

"At 94, I have to realize, I've got to make plans to have somebody else do it," he said.

Thorne, who grew up on Long Island, banded his first bird at 13. The idea of teaching bird banding at Thorne Nature Experience came as a way to keep teenagers engaged in educational programs at the nonprofit. His first class in 1988 sold out, and the program has ever since, he said.

"We hear, over and over again, of students that say their experience with bird banding impacted their career choice, or their choice to go to a certain college and study a certain thing," said Erin Saunders, education programs director at Thorne Nature Experience. "We see kids grow up to be adults, and they'll come back and say that it was bird banding that inspired them to go into a career in science or ornithology."

Even in his 90s, Thorne still visits the nonprofit's East Boulder headquarters every day. As honorary president, he continues to help with fundraising and frequently attends staff meetings. Saunders, who is in her 19th year at Thorne Nature Experience, said Thorne is the face of the organization.

"He's so youthful in so many ways, and he always says it's because he has his own connection to nature," she said.

Gwen Tenney, Thorne's co-leader for the bird banding program and a preschool teacher at Thorne Nature Experience, described Thorne as deeply authentic, profoundly loving and wise.

"He doesn't talk down to anyone," she said. "I think he sees himself in everyone, and vice versa."

A 'transformative' experience

Bird banding club is held at Thorne Nature Experience on Thursdays in April and May for roughly 12 students, most of whom are in their early teens. There's a lot of overlap between the club and camp, which takes place over a couple of two-week sessions in June. Some of the more-devoted students often do both.

One of these devotees is Meghan McCutchan, who's been banding birds with Thorne for six years. McCutchan is taking a gap year after graduating from Boulder's Fairview High School this month but is interested in studying ornithology down the line. She didn't always have an interest in birds, though — this program, she said, is what sparked it.

"It just gives you a lot of appreciation for a lot of little details," McCutchan said. "You can see the individual feathers. You feel it breathe."

On Thursday alone, club members caught about 10 birds, including some red-winged blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds. Many of the participants echoed McCutchan's appreciation of getting to see the animals up close. They learn how to hold the birds without hurting them, how to squeeze the bands onto the birds' legs with pliers and how to release them into the air.

"Oak just has so much experience in general," said Brooke Sturtz, 15, who lives near Thornton. "He's been doing this for, like, all of his life. He's so comfortable with the birds, too."

A few of the members said they signed up for the club as soon as they heard it would be Thorne's last year. Sturtz said lots of participants over the years have been inspired and guided to future careers through Thorne's leadership.

"When I was a kid, I just said, 'I want to be a vet,' she said. "And now I'm narrowing it down to what kind of vet. This program taught me a lot."

According to Tenney, Thorne Nature Experience is the only organization in the country that lets teenagers handle the birds rather than simply showing them the banding process. A lot of people, she said, underestimate the capabilities of kids — but not Thorne.

"Kids can't work with binoculars," she said. "You can get excited from far away, but coming eye to eye with a red-winged blackbird really can be transformative. And we know, because we've seen it."

Thorne Nature Experience volunteer Liam Reagan grew up participating in the nonprofit's summer camp programs, calling them a great part of his childhood. Reagan stopped by the club Thursday afternoon to say hello to Thorne and release a few of the captured birds.

"The first camp I ever did with Thorne (Nature Experience) was bird banding," he said. "I guess it's a sign that things are changing."

The future

For now, Thorne Nature Experience staff aren't sure what the future of bird banding looks like at the organization.

One big reason for this comes from Thorne's position as the only employee with the proper qualifications to run the program. Thorne carries a master banding permit, which he said is hard to acquire, as prospective carriers usually have to be connected to a university or a government's Game and Fish Department.

Thorne is also, in many ways, the keeper of the program itself. He's in charge of the journal in which the birds' band numbers are recorded and holds onto the program's equipment, like the wooden stand where the metal bands and other tools rest. He built the stand itself, and all his tools have names.

While bird banding camp usually limits participation to 12 kids, capacity is planned to increase to about 15 this summer, plus several teaching assistants.

"It's maybe the last summer for this, so I can't say no to anybody right now," Tenney said.

It's possible a different master bird bander could come to Thorne Nature Experience to lead future camps or classes, but Tenney said this summer marks the end to the program as it's existed for 35 years. She said bird banding might become something that gets "sprinkled into" other youth programs.

"We're still negotiating exactly what's going to happen next," she said. "There's talk about doing a more 'science in general' kind of camp, where bird banding is a part of it. But it's unlikely that there will be a five-days-a-week, only-bird-banding focus."

Saunders said she's trying to focus on the positive aspects of the transition. Thorne Nature Experience staff will hold a private celebration for Thorne on June 23, the last day of bird banding camp, which she said is meant to serve as the "culmination" of his legacy.

Regardless of how the program evolves within the nonprofit, Thorne has no plans to stop doing the hobby on his own time.

"I will keep banding birds until I drop dead," he said.