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Local Hero: Oak Thorne

The birder and educator is staying safe and still inspiring young people despite COVID-19.

Since the age of 13, ecologist and educator Oakleigh Thorne, II, Ph.D., has been banding birds to study their migration patterns. Now at age 91, he’s still at it, spreading his love of nature to over 250,000 Front Range youth since founding the original nonprofit as Thorne Ecological Institute, in Boulder, in 1954. In fact, one yellow-headed blackbird he banded showed up in Guadalajara, Mexico, five years later.

From a one-acre nature center adjacent to the Sombrero Marsh Open Space, Thorne Nature Experience now teaches youth ages 2 to 15 about birds and bird banding, wildlife, insects, how water pollution affects cities, and many other aspects of nature. Birds are safely trapped, then children have a chance to touch them gently after they are banded and before being released. “To have contact with wild birds is very important. Most children have never touched a wild bird in their lives,” he says. Many students have gone on to careers in biology and other STEM disciplines. 

Thorne grew up in East Islip, Long Island, on 60 acres of woods, streams, and a lake, and later honed his love of nature at Millbrook School in Millbrook, New York, which even has its own accredited zoo. After studying biology and conservation at Yale, he received his doctorate in biology at the University of Colorado and started a successful career as an educational film producer before turning to hands-on environmental education.

To follow COVID-19 restrictions, Thorne is offering virtual programs during the school year. And Thorne is staying safe and using Zoom, though he misses being involved in person. “It’s fun to go to work everyday and connect kids with nature,” he says. “Little kids are nearer to the ground and often see things we adults sometimes miss.”

—Jeff Blumenfeld

Cover photo; 91-year-old Oak Thorne is waiting out COVID-19 and ready to teach bird banding. Photo courtesy Thorne Nature Experience

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