I have worked for National Audubon (not as an employee, but continuously on contract) for 25 years now, first as associate editor of American Birds (which they published until the late 1990s) and more recently as a field editor for Audubon Magazine. For the last 15 years of that time, the president of Audubon has been a dynamic, hard-working individual named John Flicker. Despite being named for a bird, he’s not mainly a bird person. He was trained in law and he did impressive things with The Nature Conservancy before coming to NAS. But when the situation called for it, John would get out there in the field with the Audubon troops, pursuing bird sightings with zest and energy. He did everything with zest and energy, and he accomplished a lot in his time at Audubon.
The news this week was that Flicker is stepping down as NAS president, going on to do different things. Already, some people are offering assessments of his term. John was a major believer in the value of Audubon Centers, and he pushed an initiative called a “2020 Vision” that aimed to open a thousand such centers by the year 2020. I don’t think the initiative is on track to hit that one thousand mark (after all, that would be about one per week for 20 years), but many Audubon Centers have opened and they are already having a fabulous positive influence -- for example, here in Ohio, the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, right in the heart of Columbus, is perfectly situated to reach a large urban audience and teach them about nature. Many other centers are also up and running. So even if the effort falls short of 1,000 by 2020, it would be totally wrong to call it a failure.
I’ve heard a few people comment that NAS lost members during John Flicker’s term. That’s true in a narrow sense, but the fact is that the majority of membership organizations and publications have declined in the last 15 years, as people have gotten more and more of the same benefits from joining online communities. I think it’s a credit to Flicker that Audubon is still as strong as it is.
National Audubon is launching a search for the next president. But in the meantime, big news for birders is that the interim head of NAS will be Dr. Frank Gill, Audubon’s senior scientist. Frank is a world-class ornithologist and a remarkable dynamo who has done so many things that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Like some of the very best ornithologists, he started off as a rabid kid birder, and he went on to do research that took him all over the world: studying sunbirds in Africa, white-eyes and seabirds on islands in the Indian Ocean, hermit hummingbirds in South America, as well as landmark studies of warblers and chickadees in North America. He headed up the bird department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for several years before going to Audubon as senior vice-president for science. While at the Academy, he started project VIREO (the world’s foremost scientific collection of bird photos) and launched the Birds of North America project (now online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). He was responsible for the worldwide list of standardized bird names of the International Ornithological Congress. His textbook on Ornithology, now in its third edition, is a standard college text.
I could go on about what he’s done. But mainly I wanted to add a personal note. Frank has been a friend of mine since the late 1980s, when I worked for him at the Academy for a couple of years; and in addition to being a great ornithologist, he’s also a great birder, and tons of fun to hang out with. At the Academy and later at the Audubon offices, a familiar sound was Frank’s booming laugh echoing down the hallway. Conversation with him is always a dizzying experience; he comes up with enough new ideas in a day to keep a normal person occupied for a year. A day in the field with him is a combination of perceptive birding, deep insights, and crazy jokes, in about equal measures. Frank Gill is brilliant, dynamic, down-to-earth, and totally dedicated to birds. He’s only the interim president of Audubon, but while he’s in charge there, the organization is definitely in good hands.