The Birdman

“Everybody has a bird story,” says Thomas Luhman, Emeritus Board Chair of BirdNote, a popular, longstanding radio show on NPR. “Everyone has had an interaction at some point with these fascinating creatures that stands out.”

BirdNote has a simple concept: to feature short stories about birds—about their impact, their intrigue, their interesting lives and behaviors, and their interaction with humans. But it has made a huge footprint. The two to three-minute show, with a catchy, unforgettable theme song, is currently broadcast on over 250 national and international public radio stations, with five million plus daily listeners.

And, for Luhman, his involvement all started with one very elusive, endangered bird—the California condor.

“I guess it was just the adventure of it all,” he says. “It’s like a little treasure hunt. When you see something so special—in particular with binoculars—you see much more of the detail and the colors. You see its behavior; you see how it moves through the world.”

Several decades ago, Luhman began searching for the condor when a friend of his called and told him there was a chance to see the rare bird. That this particular breed would soon be extinct, and there were few remaining in the wild. He wanted to see one.

At that time, Luhman worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York  as a senior manager with a Ph.D. in materials science. BirdNote wasn’t on his radar yet.

“He called me, and we flew out to California. We drove down the cliffs in Big Sur, the ocean on one side, mountains on the other. I saw this other guy on the side of the road, leaning over the rocks with his binoculars. I thought, ‘There must be something there.’ So we stopped. And sure enough, there was the last remaining free-flying condor, and we got to see it,” Luhman says. “It was beautiful.”

“It eventually flew away. I took a couple of pictures of it. But my friend and I saw what was probably the last free-flying California condor. Anyway, that got me interested in birding.” (Note, a successful breeding program has reintroduced this magnificent bird.)

That’s Luhman’s first bird story, although he has hundreds. He has flown around the world to scout birds in Africa, Australia, and beyond. He can talk about native Washington hummingbirds and Bower birds in Australia. He makes birding riveting.

Meanwhile, upon hearing about BirdNote, he knew he wanted to be a part of it.

“Back then, I realized the organization was just a couple of years old and struggling. I knew nothing about nonprofits, nothing about fundraising. I was a scientist, an engineer. But I learned,” Luhman says. “I wanted to be a part of the organization, the community.”

And for many years, he has helped grow the show, saw it through many stages and platforms. Now, he still supports the mission, the vision. He is heavily involved in the birding community in Seattle and the show. But, his greatest mission right now is to spread awareness about the environmental threat on birds.

“I hate to say it, but birds are really threatened right now,” Luhman says. “They are disappearing at an alarming rate. Mostly it’s because their habitats are disappearing. It’s something you can’t see if you’re not looking. I think that’s another reason to listen to BirdNote. It’s to get people interested and invested.”

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