A Tribute to Donal C. O’Brien, a Conservationist for the Ages

A Tribute to Donal C. O’Brien, a Conservationist for the Ages

The National Audubon Society celebrates the enduring legacy of a devout bird lover.

By the Editors
Published: 09/09/2013

Many in our Audubon family were Donal's friends and disciples. Please feel free to share your memories in our comments section.

Few leaders in the history of the conservation movement have been as passionate about birds as Donal C. O'Brien Jr., who passed away at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, on September 8 at the age of 79 from pneumonia.

Donal served 25 years on the National Audubon Society's Board of Directors, including 15 years as its chairman. During his board tenure, Donal co-chaired the Society's monumental strategic planning process to "connect people with nature." The plan led to the establishment of Audubon's network of state offices across the country. These offices, in turn, launched the Important Bird Areas program—there are now nearly 2,700 IBAs nationwide—and helped open 43 new Audubon centers. (One of these, the Audubon sanctuary and center at Pine Island, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, was named in his honor.) These centers reach a diverse array of new and younger audiences and inspire future conservation leaders. Donal also embraced Audubon's grassroots network of 465 community-based chapters.

Donal not only charted Audubon's course, he gave it momentum through his legendary fundraising efforts. These successful drives included the annual Birdathon that he and his wife, Katie, conducted for 28 consecutive years during which they raised more than $3 million for Audubon's bird conservation initiatives—from saving waterfowl, shorebirds, and grassland birds to restoring the California condor and strengthening protections for Long Island Sound. "Katie and I have a secret to our successful Birdathons," he said. "Our leader is always a member of Audubon's field staff. They are the real heroes of our Birdathons."

When Donal stepped down as Audubon's chairman in 2003, his friends and former fellow directors raised $5 million to establish the Donal C. O'Brien Jr. Chair in Bird Conservation and Public Policy to catalyze Audubon's bird conservation agenda across the country and throughout the Western Hemisphere. To no one's surprise, Donal led fundraising efforts to implement Audubon's Important Bird Areas program, which identifies and conserves the essential sites our birds need to breed, winter, rest, and refuel during migration.

As a former duck hunter, Donal grasped early on the significance of the four flyways that inspired Audubon's latest strategic plan, in 2010. "In [Audubon president] David Yarnold's second week on the job, Donal told me, 'We have to have a hemispheric vision of flyways for all migratory birds,' " says Glenn Olson, a longtime friend and the Donal O'Brien Chair in Bird Conservation and Public Policy.

“Donal was peerless," says David Yarnold. "His vision for Audubon to organize itself by the ‘flyways’ that birds use was an idea that was ahead of its time. It’s not now; it’s the heart of our strategy and Donal will always be its champion.”

In 2010 he was awarded the 51st Audubon Medal, joining the likes of Walt Disney, Rachel Carson, and Robert Redford. Says Holt Thrasher, Audubon's current board chair, "Donal provided some of the steadiest and most inspired leadership that Audubon ever had."

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Donal's determination kept him going, even during his recent illnesses. "He lived a very full life," says Olson. "He never lost his belief that he could influence outcomes. And he finished the race well, passionate and committed, 100 per cent with his heart and head even as his body was breaking down." Whether it was the escalating loss of native prairie and wetlands in the Dakotas or the draining of wetlands in North Carolina, Olson was setting up meetings between Donal and Audubon conservation leaders from around the country till Donal's final days.

Donal served as chief legal counsel for the Rockefeller Family and Associates, and was a partner in the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy. In that capacity, he got to know Jackie Robinson, an enthusiastic supporter of Nelson Rockefeller. After Robinson retired from baseball, Donal, a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan, helped secure him a job at Chock Full o'Nuts, and the two sometimes enjoyed their commute to Manhattan together on the train from their homes in Connecticut.

Three governors appointed Donal as chairman and a member of the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality. As chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, he spearheaded efforts to remove dams blocking the passage of spawning fish. He was also the founding chairman of BirdLife International, a global network of conservation organizations focused on birds in 110 countries and territories worldwide. Under his aegis, Audubon became BirdLife's U.S. partner. A master decoy carver, he was the U.S. National Amateur Champion twice. His carvings of puffins helped Audubon's program to restore breeding colonies of Atlantic puffins to the coast of Maine after a 100-year absence.

"I remember well Steve Kress going to Newfoundland in the dark of night and taking the baby Puffins from their nest and bringing them down to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay," Donal wrote his friend and fellow conservation leader, Nathaniel Reed weeks before his death. "I also remember Kathy Blanchard painting the Puffin decoys and waiting for two years for the Puffins to return to the Eastern Egg Rock. Can you imagine the excitement that Steve and Kathy had when they looked out and saw the returning Puffins, after two years. How thrilled they must have been. This has got to be one of the great conservation stories of all time."

Donal is survived by his wife, Katie, chair emeritus of the Audubon Connecticut board, four grown children, and 11 grandchildren. The memorial service will take place on September 18 at 11am at the First Prebyterian Church in New Canaan, Connecticut.

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