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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Comments

We had a wonderful memorial

We had a wonderful memorial service today in New Canaan CT to remember Donal O'Brien. Leaders of Audubon from the past 4 decades paid tribute to him. All 11 grandchildren and all 4 of Donal and Katie's children shared their love of Don and their love of nature because of Don and Katie. We have lost a great conservation leader. The New York Times compared him to Teddy Roosevelt. Another writer said leaders like Donal only come along once in a generation. I think Donal thought otherwise, that he invested in people- in listening, encouraging, asking questions, mentoring and caring with the thought that they would step up , suit up and get in the arena to make a difference. That investment in people who inspired by their love of nature, and encouraged by a person like Donal, actually do make a difference will sustain the legacy of Donal O'Brien into the future.

God bless him for all that he

God bless him for all that he has done for nature!

Don was an iconic figure

Don was an iconic figure during the years we shared with Aububon for all the right reasons. He was passoniate, engaged, thoughtful, forceful, and encouraging. A true leader, and an inspiration for all of us following in his conservation footsteps. He will be missed but he leaves a lasting legacy. Thank you to the O'Brien family for sharing all of his time and energy, and his passionate commitment.

This is indeed sad and

This is indeed sad and unexpected news.

I had an English professor in college who used to argue there was no such thing as the saying "words can't express", because, she said, there were enough words in the English language to express every feeling. I'm certainly thinking now that she may have been wrong on that one. It just may be that for some people the words to adequately describe who they were and how we feel about them just aren't there. We may get close, but we'll always feel that we're still searching for a better expression or a better word to adequately describe them.

You're message Glenn brought a flood of wonderful incredible memories, as I'm sure it has for so many. How fortunate I was to have had the experience of spending time with Katie and Donal on some terrific adventures. Looking for condors on the Hudson Ranch with John Ogden in 1983; chasing Rosy Finches on the Continental Divide in July in a driving snowstorm; finding Least Bittern, Masked Duck and Least Grebe in a small remnant pond only about 5' in diameter on the King Ranch during a Birdathon with Mike Farmer; birding with Donal and Katie, and Pete DeSimone and Dusty Dunstan in the Transverse Range in California in spring; looking for California Gnatcatcher on Starr Ranch; watching Swainson's Hawks soar over Alkali Lake Sanctuary in North Dakota in spring during lunch on the lawn at Bruce Barbour's house; and post-Birdathon celebrations at the Yardarm Restaurant in Corpus Christi with Ed and Janet Harte, Donal and Katie, Mike and Rose Farmer, Scott Hedges, Anne Brown, Tom Keesee, Howard Brokaw, Helen Alexander and others.

In all of these adventures Donal always wanted to know how the surrounding landscape was protected, who owned it, did we need to do anything to assure it's protection, what was the name of the local chapter, who was the president. The Birdathons were a classic Donal and Katie O'Brien. Donal in the front seat with clip board and yellow note pad, recording times, weather, species, exact location, and Katie pointing out everything we missed, supplying trail mix, drinks, and food from the next seat back with Mike or Rose or Scott. For Donal and Katie, these were not just casual days of birdwatching, they were both intensely interested in what they were seeing, what numbers meant, what the habitat looked like, and how to use what we saw in some conservation context. One observation of many stands out. We were birding on the King Ranch on our Birdathon and we came upon thousands of acres that had just been cleared of native tamalipian brush habitat for cotton planting. The removed brush had been pushed up in big piles to be burned. There had been a significant flight of neo-tropical migrants the night before, and as we viewed the surrounding leveled landscape each pile of brush was covered with migrant birds; summer and scarlet tanagers, blue and rose-breasted grosbeaks, painted and indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, thrushes, baltimore and bullock's orioles, dickcissels, curve-billed and long-billed thrashers,and warblers. It was a devastating site. Don and Katie talked about that day for years afterwards...they were truly moved by the birds plight. I don't think I have ever been with anyone in the field that had that same kind of empathetic reaction to birds in trouble.

He was one of a kind.

Donal O'Brien was truly

Donal O'Brien was truly steadfast in protecting wildlife and habitat through every avenue of conservation. I am saddened to learn of his passing.

Though my service to Audubon was primarily administrative, and interactions with Donal limited, I greatly enjoyed his passion, knowledge, candor and approachability. His presence alone was enough to remind me that we all, regardless of our specific roles, played an integral part in protecting, preserving and enjoying our natural heritage.

I also thank Mr. O'Brien to this day for teaching me the value of clear, concise and compelling communication. To use "purple" language, as he put it, was to waste your reader's time and abominate your goal. He not only built lifelong relationships with people but engaged them in lifelong relationships with the natural world around them.

My deepest condolences to his family and friends.

This is a very, very sad

This is a very, very sad passing for so many of us involved in bird conservation. To be sure, it marks the passing not just of an important man, but of a whole era for Audubon and for conservation. This was personally devastating for me, as although I'd known Donal was physically ailing, I would never have thought, when we last spoke, that he was nearing his final days -- he sounded great. Donal was a true stalwart, and a bulldog for things that matter most in conservation. He was also a dear friend and fiercely loyal to those with whom he worked so tirelessly over the years. The world is a different place without Donal O'Brien - a great tree has fallen, in our forest of mostly lesser growth.

Anyone whoever met Donal

Anyone whoever met Donal probably has a vivid recollection of that first meeting. I am guessing all first such meetings were either something to do with conserving birds or seeing birds. Thanks specifically to Donal I was able to launch new conservation programs on the Gulf of Mexico to conserve beach-nesting birds. And after this ten years our work continues. He always seemed to know what focus or what effort would be a good bang for the buck and do the most to conserve birds and their precious habitats. As a person, he was one of those unique individuals who had such a deep love of birds and nature that is entire persona was one of youthful enthusiasm. No doubt I am just one of the thousands he supported and inspired and I will remember him fondly forever.

I got out of the car this

I got out of the car this morning and happened to find a Connecticut Warbler right on the lawn of the Audubon Greenwich Center and I said to myself, Don wanted me to see that bird, and if he was here I would have called him and he would have told me that was a beautiful bird, one of his favorites no doubt and then he would have told me about seeing it with an old friend somewhere and how that person went on to do some very successful conservation effort because of that walk they took together and because they saw that beautiful bird, then he would end by saying I love Connecticut Warblers, thanks for telling me about that.

And that was the essence of Don, whether he was talking with a grandchild, staff or a Board member, he was a listener, a sharer of stories, someone who challenged us all to strive to do our best, and someone who led by example. We will miss you Don but always hold up your spirit by never giving up the conservation mission.

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