For the Birds

UPDATED 09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

On a bright summer afternoon a man in Central Park peers up through binoculars at a Fifth Avenue apartment building. No need to call the NYPD. John Flicker is surveilling a ledge where red-tailed hawks are nesting. For weeks birdwatchers have been gathering to observe the parents teaching their young to fly. "Look," says Flicker, pointing to the father hawk on a window rail. "He stands there literally feeling like an empty nester."

Just then the group locates a young red-tail in a tall oak tree, tearing up a fresh-killed pigeon. Flicker, 51, looks on with paternal pride. "The young hawks are doing well," he says. "They are learning to make a living in the park."

Since 1995 Flicker has made his living as president of the 550,000-member National Audubon Society, where he has earned his wings as one of the nation's premier environmentalists. "John combines a probing intellect with a distinctive ability to work with people from all walks of life," says Kathryn Fuller, president of the "World Wildlife Fund.

Flicker spent most of his pre-Audubon career with the Nature Conservancy, buying land to save it. As state director in Florida, he helped design a much heralded program that has bought more than 1 million acres for preservation at a cost of $3 billion. "He helped launch the single largest acquisition and preservation program ever undertaken in any state," says Carol Browner, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "John gets what he wants through his quiet, smart, committed style."

What Flicker wants now is to build 1,000 child-oriented nature centers around the country by the year 2020. He wants to give every kid what he calls a "wow experience," something that will cause children to marvel at—and start to care about—nature. And he doesn't want anyone left out. "We're trying to put nature centers where they do not traditionally exist," says Flicker, noting that Audubon is building such centers—with exhibits and programs to get kids involved in the outdoors—in urban areas like East Los Angeles and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Another has opened outside Lincoln, Neb., on land traversed by the Oregon Trail, where the original wagon ruts are still three feet deep. "We have the kids push a cart down the actual trail," says Flicker.

He spends much of his time on the road lining up donations of land and money from such environmentally minded benefactors as chemical-company heiress Jean Ellen duPont Shehan, 77, who has donated a 952-acre estate—including a critical 8 miles of unspoiled Maryland shoreline—for one of the nature centers. "The Audubon Society's interest in education matched the family's," says Shehan's son Jamie McConnek, 47. "We wanted it protected and we wanted it to be enjoyed."

The seeds for Flicker's own love of nature were planted in childhood. The third of eight children of dairy farmers Gerald Flicker, 73, and his wife, Rita, 76, John grew up on a 160-acre dairy farm in tiny Pierz, Minn. He remembers milking the cows before school, planting corn and oats and baling hay. "It was a lot of physical labor," he says, "which I liked." It was also his introduction to the land ethic. "You realize everything comes from the land," he says. "If you take care of it, it takes care of you."

At age 10, John had his own first wow experience. "I remember watching this big flock of snow geese come in in a V-formation," he says. "They circled and landed on a freshly plowed field. It was a black field with big white birds and it was just the most amazing thing. It made me think about a bigger world out there."

Raised a Roman Catholic, Flicker felt early in life that he wanted to be a priest. At 14, he entered a seminary 30 miles from home and stayed there five years. "In our little community," he says, "the assistant pastors were the only people that had traveled and were educated."

It was the 1960s, though, and the idealistic Flicker soon got swept up in the political currents of the day. One weekend in 1968 he left the monastery to campaign for anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. That did it. He left for good a few months later and enrolled in the University of Minnesota. Then he went to law school, getting his degree in 1974 from the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. That same year he saw an "attorney wanted" ad on a bulletin board posted by an organization called the Nature Conservancy. "I talked to the guy running the office," says Flicker, "and I was hooked forever. I wanted to do something to change the world."

Over the next 21 years he shuttled between the group's field offices and Arlington, Va., headquarters. At a party in 1983 Flicker met Jane Swanson, who leased office space in Washington, D.C., for MCI. Ten months later Flicker took Jane home to Minnesota. "He proposed to me on the farm," says Swanson, "because it was the land. It was very touching." They married in December 1984.

These days Swanson, 47, now an aide to a New York City councilman, and Flicker—who has a son, Dan, 22, from a previous marriage—live in a tidy two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with bird prints on every wall. The Audubon offices, located on lower Broadway, are just a subway ride away. But he gets restless indoors, Swanson says. "He has to go out and put his boots on and feel the soil beneath him."

According to Dan, a recent Bowdoin College grad, Flicker was not really a bird-watcher prior to landing the Audubon job. But he sure sounded like one during a recent trek to a wildlife refuge on the outskirts of the city. "All right, let's see if we can see something before we get out there," he says to the busload of birders, as they drive along a busy Queens highway.

"There's two birds!" says someone, pointing to starlings on a gas sign.

"And there's a rock dove!" says someone else.

"Formally known as pigeons," Flicker chuckles. "That counts. Two species. All right, we're racking them up!"

William Plummer
Eve Heyn in New York City

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