To paraphrase Johnny Cash, when it comes to Audubon Society of Omaha, Neal Ratzlaff has, indeed, been everywhere, man. Literally.
Over the years, birding has inspired Neal to migrate from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Maine to Louisiana. He has flown to New Zealand, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago (whose Main Ridge Forest Preserve shelters hummingbirds). Closer to home, Neal has swooped across North Dakota, the Sandhills, Pine Ridge and Indian Cave State Park – not to mention Nebraska’s sewage treatment plants, where “waterfowl” takes on a whole new meaning. “It’s been a great ride,” he says.
He traces his “serious interest” in birds to 1972, when he moved back to Omaha in his mid-30s. Soon after, Father Thomas Hoffman, the Glenwood Christmas Bird Count captain, took Neal under his wing, mentoring him on birding basics. Since then, Neal estimates he has completed about 40 counts in that quadrant, first as one of Father Hoffman’s rookies, then as the quadrant captain when Father Hoffman could no longer participate, and now as “a sentimental old veteran who can’t see or hear nearly as well as he used to.
“Oh, the friends I’ve made – great and enduring friendships with nice folks, spanning the field of nature and promoting interests in plants, butterflies and more,” he adds.
NEAL HELPS PILOT ASO THROUGH ITS EARLY YEARS
In the mid-’70s, Neal began an enduring relationship with Audubon Society of Omaha. By the end of the decade, he took on the role of a director, and from 1981-1982, he served as ASO president.
Led by Neal and fellow board members Marlene Weber and John Upchurch, as well as National Audubon Society Regional Representative Ed Pembleton, ASO kicked off its first Birdseed Sale in 1981. Neal chaired the annual fund- and consciousness-raiser from 1981 through the mid-1990s, when he was succeeded by Kathleen Crawford Rose until John and Betty Fullerton took the reins more recently. From 1983 through 2018, when ASO consolidated the seed distribution process at its new office and warehouse location, Neal distributed birdseed from his garage.
Neal’s many contributions to Audubon Society of Omaha have earned him two service awards, one in 1986 and the other in 1999.
In addition to his upcoming presentation on “The Birds of Lewis and Clark,” he has been the featured speaker at both annual and monthly member meetings, including one program focusing on wildflowers with Roland Barth, with whom he co-authored two books, including a field guide to wildflowers for Fontenelle Forest.
WHAT DOES NEAL REMEMBER MOST FONDLY?
“Field trips, Christmas Counts and Birdseed Sales – I’ve made lasting friendships at all of these events,” he emphasizes.
WHAT ARE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT IMPACTS ON BIRDING NEAL HAS SEEN?
“Even old guys like me have been influenced by new technologies,” he observes. “Email certainly affected us, but the advent of cell phones really changed the game. Now, one has almost instant access to whatever cool sighting any birder who group texts or uses eBird has come across.” Regrettably, due in part to Covid, Neal notes that “I don’t think we do nearly as much group birding as we used to.
“My field notebook has all but disappeared in favor of the sightings I enter on eBird,” he says, adding, “I often lament the disappearance of my notebook, but I really value the data eBird observers generate.”
Neal cites digital photography as an additional game changer. “Those long documentations of unusual bird sightings you hoped the records committee would believe have been replaced, for the most part, by photographic documentation. Unlike some in newer generations who bird mainly with their cameras, I still use my binoculars,” he says.
Like other experts and naturalists, Neal lists habitat loss and climate change as two of the greatest challenges that require concerted attention around the globe.
WHAT CAN WE DO
TO PROMOTE BIRDING FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS?
Helping people connect with and experience nature for themselves is a vital first step, Neal contends.
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“For me, personally, it involves introducing my grandchildren to nature every chance I get and hoping that, somehow, love of and respect for nature will take root amid the worlds of sports and technology.
“We need places where people can experience nature,” he continues, “places like our ASO prairies, Spring Creek Prairie, Rowe Sanctuary, and Fontenelle Forest. We need to provide
educational opportunities – field trips, guided hikes/trips wherever and whenever we can.
“It can be as simple as feeding birds in your yard, he says. “That can be a great connector for many people.”
Neal also encourages planting pollinator-friendly yards, as well as native plant species, which will thrive, often without green-thumb care. And he discourages the use of pesticides and herbicides, wondering if “a perfect bluegrass lawn” is as valuable in the long run as a bit of natural diversity.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR NEAL?
“At my age,” Neal says, “the birding bucket list is fast becoming a list of things I wish I had done rather than a list of specific things I’d like to do. Yes, I do have all kinds of lists, and, yes, I have been known to pursue that rare and unusual bird. But, when you think about it, by and large, birding is just an excuse to be out in nature.
“Who knows? That next awesome unexpected experience might just be better than anything you thought of putting on your bucket list.”