New York City might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about studying the natural world, but in fact the Big Apple is home to more parkland space than any other city in the United States. And NYU Liberal Studies professor Leo Douglas invites his students to take a closer look at those key places where the human and natural worlds intersect in his course “Birds, Biodiversity, and the City,” which examines ecological systems and human-social experiences in order to explore the biological history of earth and discuss the socio-political dimensions of environmental science.

Bird in trees

Students look through binoculars

On one field trip this fall, the class visited Central Park's 40-acre North Woods. The largest of the park’s three woodlands, it was constructed to feel like a part of the Adirondacks, with rivers, waterfalls, and a hilly interior. On the trip, students carried binoculars and downloaded a mobile app with a bird field guide, and were led by both Douglas and by Nadir Souirgi, an expert birder from the NYC Audubon Society. The group spotted a variety of North American birds, like the brown thrasher, during the height of the fall songbird migration, and even glimpsed a migrating cooper’s hawk devouring a chipmunk.

“I have been a nature lover and bird watcher all my life,” says Douglas, who studied the effects of deforestation on Jamaican and North American birds at The University of the West Indies, Mona. 

Leo Douglas and students

He’s also a former president of Birds Caribbean, an NGO that focuses on wildlife conservation in the region, and is currently a visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Guiding the bird walk in Central Park is just one way that Douglas encourages students to contemplate the enormous diversity of life on earth, and the environmental impacts of humans at multiple scales. On another trip, for example, he takes the group to Fjällräven, an outdoor equipment company, to learn about sustainability as it relates to fashion.


Mobile app

Throughout the semester, the course tackles key themes in environmental science, including: agriculture, climate change, energy resources, pollution, social privilege, and environmental justice. But the North Woods excursion may be a particular highlight, Douglas says, because “students value the escape they feel visiting this area.”

Leo Douglas and students

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