By Mike Weilbacher
The following paper was presented as the keynote address at the 2005 conference of the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) at the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, August 2005. Mike is a former PAEE president, newsletter editor and Outstanding Environmental Educator (1991), and directs the Lower Merion Conservancy.
Global surface temperatures are rising, glaciers worldwide are melting, the ocean is warming, rainforests are burning, species are vanishing at the highest rates since the end of the Mesozoic, coral reefs are bleaching and dying, old growth forests are disappearing, deserts are spreading, the world’s population is rising, the future of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hangs by a thread, the new energy bill left no lobbyist behind, yet much of the attention of the western world is preoccupied by a question critical to the fate of humankind:
Just what is Brad Pitt’s relationship to Angelina Jolie?
For the next hour or so, we’ll nibble at the edge of that question to see its importance to our work, but what we’ll really do is talk through the state of environmental education, looking at emerging trends and practice using our crystal balls to make predictions for the road ahead. We’re going to place our fingers on the pulse of popular culture and take a reading as to where we all stand.
ALERT: You need to be a CLEARING subscriber to read the rest of this article.
(enter password then hit return button on your keyboard for best results)
It feels to me like environmental education is at a crossroads—that we are on the threshold of either a new era or oblivion, and I’m not sure which. But then it feels like environmental education has always been at a crossroads, has never really grabbed onto its place in the American educational firmament. In fact, I believe my first NAEE conference (and then it was called NAEE) was in something like 1980—a conference that then featured a rising young political star named Bill Clinton as a keynote—was actually themed, Environmental Education at the Crossroads. We were there then; we have been there ever since.
For we are barnacles, tenacious shelled creatures glued to the rocks at the edges of the ocean, neither fully of the ocean nor of the land, kicking our legs furiously when the tide roars in hoping to capture meager nuggets of resources drifting by. It is honest work, it is necessary work, yet it is exhausting work. While I love the edge of the ocean, I really long to fully participate in the mainstream of culture—I want to swim with the dolphins.
Environmental education’s history has been told and retold in many shapes and forms over the years by people better qualified to recount that history. But let’s greatly simplify that history for a moment. Its roots stretch back into the nature study movement of Victorian times (a movement paralleled by the birth of the Sierra Club and Roosevelt’s startling environmental presidency), then into mid-century’s conservation education, with outdoor education weaving in and out of the story. But the beast we now call environmental education really began as a response to a wave of environmental concerns that captured public and media attention in a magical decade extending from the mid-Sixties through the mid-Seventies.
My own organization began in 1974 when a high school science teacher wanted to restore native trout to our highly suburbanized streams. My own career began as a response to Earth Day in 1970; reading about DDT and Rachel Carson and egg-shell thinning and the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River catching fire twice and phosphates in detergents and lead in gasoline grabbed my imagination and never let go. The phrase “environmental education” entered the lexicon at that time, and interpretive naturalists morphed, often uneasily, into environmental educators, with many nature centers undergoing name changes at about the same time. This was the first wave of environmental education, halcyon days us gray-haired barnacles look back on with misty eyes, and it did not last long enough.
The second wave erupted circa 1988 when medical waste began washing up on shorelines, hot summers shattered temperature records, severe drought gripped huge sections of the country, Yellowstone burned, and NASA scientist Jim Hansen told a Senate committee chaired by then-Senator Al Gore that the earth was warming from the burning of excessive amounts of fossil fuels. In 1988, instead of its usual Person of the Year, TIME magazine named Earth the Planet of the Year, one of its more interesting picks for the year’s biggest newsmaker. The biggest selling environmental book of all time—50 Simple Things—is published at this same time, as are dozens of spin-offs and knock-offs. Al Gore pens “Earth in the Balance” and is soon elected vice president. These were also heady days: Gore wrote that the environment should be the central organizing principle for western civilization, and was soon only a heartbeat and a couple of hanging chads away from the presidency.
My life and career eerily continues to parallel these waves, as in 1989 I was asked to host a weekly radio show on Philadelphia’s public radio station on environmental issues and interviewed people like Gore and Hansen, even Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner, my idols from the first wave. I also helped organize Philadelphia’s 1990 Earth Day festival, where 120,000 people descended on the city’s park for a strange hybrid of teach-in and mediocre rock concert. But my future wife was one of the volunteers for that Earth Day, so I personally owe my career to the first Earth Day and my family to the 20th anniversary edition.
All good things must come to an end, so this wave crested only a couple of years later. My radio show was cancelled in 1994 after a 5-year run, replaced by a call-in show on money, of all things, and the Internet bubble and Monica Lewinsky were much more interesting than any environmental issue of the moment. After the wave crested, for example, there was little hope for the passage of the Kyoto accord on global warming, which failed miserably in the now Gore-less Senate.
Careful listeners might have already picked up that I’m not telling the history of environmental education at all; rather, I am describing the history of the environmental movement itself. But EE has always piggybacked on the environmental movement, and the histories are very closely connected. Funding for EE appeared during and immediately after these waves, and that funding dried up as the waves peaked. This is an overly simplistic analysis for sure, but works, I believe in broad brush strokes—in the modern era, we have seen two waves of both environmentalism and environmental education.
Now, some 40 years after the first wave began, we have crossed a generational divide. Bill Stapp, the gentlemanly Michigan professor who drafted the definition of environmental education that has been referenced on page 1 of perhaps thousands of EE theses ever since, has passed away, as has Gaylord Nelson, the former Wisconsin Senator credited with starting 1970’s Earth Day as a national teach-in. The torch is being passed to the next generation– us barnacles– whether we like it or not, and the question for us to consider is how the terrain ahead of us looks.
Let’s cycle back to the opening: I do believe that global surface temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, the ocean is warming, rainforests are burning, species are vanishing at the highest rates since the end of the Mesozoic, coral reefs are bleaching and dying, old growth forests are disappearing, and so on. But I also believe that environmentalists like Ehrlich have been frighteningly, maddeningly wrong in their doomsday scenarios for life on Earth.
Ehrlich’s population bomb, for example, never went off the way he predicted. This has left the environmental movement, which has cried wolf perhaps one time too often, vulnerable to dismissal by critics currently in cultural ascendancy, critics like Rush Limbaugh and Robert Novak. I’ve come to believe that the earth is simultaneously fragile and resilient, and in our zealous sincerity we have over-emphasized the fragility while, as our president might say, “misunderestimated” its resilience.
Nonetheless, the four horsemen of the coming global apocalypse are bearing down upon us, and I feel like the entire environmental landscape will be radically transformed in the coming decade or so. Global warming, species extinction, water scarcity and that long overdue but inexorably ticking population time bomb will at some point soon converge— and all hell will break lose. I believe that Al Gore will be right—at some point, the environment will become the central organizing principle for civilization, and April 22’s Earth Day will become the first international nonreligious holiday.
Like 1970 needed endangered eagles and the Cuyahoga River catching fire, like 1990 needed Yellowstone’s fire and beached dolphins washing up with used needles, there will at some point be a large, mediagenic event that will trigger the third wave: the calving of a huge iceberg off Antarctica, perhaps, or the poaching death of the last mountain gorilla or black rhino or orangutan, or a new Exxon Valdez, or a massive Amazonian wildfire pointing its plume at both global warning and species loss. Crystal balls are notoriously cantankerous objects to fine tune and I could easily be off by a year or two, but I’m looking at the early 2010s for the resurgence, for the third wave. Remember, the wave we are discussing is the public response to huge environmental issues—so people are poised for an outpouring of support when the telegenic moment hits. Of course, it might be too late to actually do much about global warming in 2012, but we are talking about positioning ourselves for when the wave of public opinion and interest in action crests.
Consider the tsunami earlier this year. When January’s tidal wave hit South Asia, there was a corresponding tsunami of saturating press coverage, the media descending on these beaten countries to cover the story live. Our media-driven culture thrives on crisis, needing crisis to glue us to the electronic town square inside that little box. In fact, media routinely manufactures crisis to lure us into the tube. But remember what also happened with the tsunami: as with 9/11, billions of dollars poured into relief organizations, giving them the resources they needed to make sure the health crisis that might have been was not. There was no outbreak of malaria or typhoid, as widely predicted, because the resources were there to address human health needs.
For America is a counter-puncher. We have a very hard time taking the precautions needed to prevent chronic, long-term issues like global warming from occurring, and the media has a devil of a time covering a story like global warming that takes decades to unfold and has no one compelling image. But when we are struck by a large disaster, we respond in an extraordinary way. Now, for example, that gas prices push towards $3 a gallon, we are finally discussing energy policy in an energetic way– we are counterpunchers.
We did that the first wave, inventing environmental education, establishing numerous nonprofits to deliver that education, and passing a raft of environmental legislation. The second wave of environmental concern created an outpouring of books, magazines like E and Garbage, TV specials, the Earth Summit, and a renewed Earth Day. This will happen again: the third wave will be a tsunami of popular outpouring for environmental issues and concerns. My guess is this tsunami will be larger than the first two waves, as the issues are larger, and the tsunami will be global. Here in the states, the environment at some point will become a key issue in a presidential election, something it has failed to do thus far—it has always been the economy, stupid. But someday soon it will be the ecology: 2016 looks good, and tips that election to the first woman president, who, incidentally, will not be surnamed Clinton. There will be a resurgent interest in not just environmentalism, but environmental education.
And when that third wave hits, where will you and your center be? Will you bob along and let is pass you by, will you drown in the undertow as it crashes over you, or will you surf the coming green wave to a whole new place? That’s the question you should be asking yourself, your staff, your board, your volunteers, your membership. How can you and your center surf the wave to take environmental education to a whole new plateau in public consciousness—ironically, of course, after nature has taken that first, hardest punch? Another way of looking at this is, can this old barnacle ever swim with dolphins—or am I doomed to perish in the surf? A more interesting question:
preemptively, how can your environmental education work lay the foundation for the green wave to come even sooner than it might, as people will be looking for it?
So here’s only the beginning of a shopping list of actions we need to take to take to surf the coming green wave, subtitled, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Surfers, or perhaps, how to swim with dolphins:
One, become culturally fluent
Two, tell better stories
Three, know one big thing
Four, offer authentic experiences
Five, deepen your programming
Six, use the media
Seven, embrace technology
There are certainly other actions to take, too, and I’ve spent the last month arguing with myself over whether or not this really is the list. Remember, I am test-driving this conversation with you. With that as a caveat, let’s dive in.
1. Become culturally fluent
People who do environmental work tend to have anti-cultural biases. After all, popular culture is a relentless juggernaut dedicated specifically and solely to the marketing of product. Since the juggernaut is anti-environmental, we reject it, or try to. But EE exists within the culture, as culture is the air we breathe and water we drink. We cannot surgically remove environmental education from education or from culture.
During the first wave of environmentalism, several environmentalists became embedded in mainstream culture. Paul Ehrlich made innumerable appearances on Johnny Carson— he was fluent, passionate, urbane, interesting, had a distinct point of view, and as he lived in California, it was easy for him to get to Carson’s Burbank studios. Rachel Carson cracked the culture barrier, but her legacy was cut short as she died of cancer, of all things, soon after Silent Spring was published.
The closest thing we have to an Ehrlich these days is Bill McKibben, who’s most important book was his first, The End of Nature. But while you’ll see McKibben’s byline in magazines like Audubon or Atlantic, you’ll not see him on TV talk shows. He’s a writer, and doesn’t seem interested in becoming spokesperson for the environment. Fine. But that’s the role you need to play. You are the local spokesperson for the environment—you speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues, and I’m telling you folks, at the top of my lungs, that when the wave hits, local media will be desperately seeking angles—see, there’s a cultural reference—and you want them to easily find you, and you have to have a compelling message you can state in direct, digestible elements.
We have to be able to use the shared language of culture to talk to the mainstream. If we are unable or unwilling to embrace—and even exploit—the culture in which we live, the wave will pass you by.
2. Tell better stories
People are storytellers—we like the complex world broken down into digestible storylines. Currently, there are two competing environmental stories in the global psyche jockeying for attention, and since there are only a small handful of storylines to lean on, both are ancient, even biblical, and both are familiar.
The first is the go forth and multiply story, the have-dominion-over-the-earth story. The second, the worldview most of this room likely adheres to, is the one of perfect creation, the first sin, and the fall from grace. The natural world is an Eden that humankind is screwing up, and our job in protecting the environment is to restore paradise. Or as the song goes, “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” This is a powerful story that enjoys a strong toehold in public imagination. A significant group of people have always wanted to do the right thing, and so we have nationwide curbside recycling, dolphin-safe cat food, ecotourism, hybrid cars, and on and on. But Woodstock nation grew up into adults buying gas-swilling SUVs and building some of the largest homes in the history of humankind. So guess which storyline ultimately won?
Environmental educators have never fully taken advantage of the power of storytelling. Take global warming. Without expressing an opinion about global warming, we can say that historically the earth’s atmosphere contained 300 ppm of carbon dioxide, that through the use of fossil fuels we are now approaching 400 ppm. Many computer models indicate the following effects from a rising of the amount of atmospheric carbon: rising oceans, loss of farmland—and so it goes. Take the issue, and turn it into a story. Interpret it. The culture needs someone to hold its hand and walk it through large, complex issues—until now, it has always been environmentalists like the Sierra Club to which the culture has turned, but it naturally should be the job of educators, not activists. We not only need better stories, we need bigger stories.
Speaking of stories, I mentioned Brad Pitt at the top of the talk. The culture also hates talking about serious issues for too long—it’s too exhausting. So we need an Angelina Jolie story to distract us from the Iraqi War, and we need to know Brad Pitt’s good looks can’t save his marriage, making our own seem stronger by comparison. We can’t end the cult of celebrity, but we can, I think, exploit the cult of celebrity by weaving pop cultural references into the work that we do, adding humor and softening the difficulty of the larger environmental story.
3. Know one big thing
There is an Aesop’s fable about a very sly fox who runs into a very dull hedgehog and winds up with a face full of quills—the fox knows many things, sums the fable, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. I think often of that story and of the importance of knowing one big thing.
Go back to the idea of becoming better storytellers. To tell the story of global warming, for example, you have to first know the story of global warming, and know it so well that you can tell it from multiple angles and offer the highlights reel of most important information. Why, for example, did global temperatures drop between 1940 and 1970, not increase as you’d expect during an era of no pollution controls? Critics of global warming wield that question as a bludgeon to crush global warming models, but you can simply present it as a wonderful question that needs further understanding. Another question: do clouds reflect sunlight and lessen global warming, or do clouds, comprised of water vapor, which is another greenhouse gas, exacerbate the warming trend? Even experts aren’t sure—and that enlivens the story. But to tell the story, we need to know some information.
All environmental educators I’ve met over the years are graduates of degree programs, and many possess advanced degrees. Yet as the decades progress, I’ve never been sure what environmental educators know. 20, 30 years ago, they could take you for a walk through the forest and recite an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge—names, lifespans, economic uses, folk histories. When conservation education morphed into environmental education, we became confused as a field as to what information was now important, and hired very young people with little hands-on experience to lead our programming. So many of our programs teach that the environment is good, is important, and we all should do some subset of things to protect, preserve, even save the earth. Certainly environmental education agrees that students should understand large-scale processes— cycles, say, and energy flow—but beyond that, we seem to lose interest. We even seem anti-intellectual sometimes. We want people to love the earth, but is that enough? What do we want them to know about the earth? What is your one big thing?
In short, the knowledge we possess as a field has diminished greatly. We need to beef up our knowledge base, and one possible way is for a region’s environmental educators to specialize in issues. This educator here understands the global water crisis, while that one there studies species loss. When the press needs a comment on one issue, they know who to call—and each refers the press to the other.
We all can’t know all of this. But we can all master one big thing.
And environmental educators need to be inviting professional scientists to their conferences to get the latest info on the science aspects of these issues to enrich our storytelling.
4. Offer authentic experiences
“Think of our life in nature,” wrote a passionate Thoreau in his posthumously published The Maine Woods, “daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?” More than a century later, we still need to answer that question, now even more so.
Environmental education offers an increasingly rare commodity: real connection to the real world, the world of dirt and trees and bugs and birds and clouds and flowers, things many parents understand their children desperately miss. Sell that connection. I understand you’ve been talking a lot about the extinction of experience, and I’ve just finished Richard Louv’s intriguing new book, Last Child in the Woods, wherein he coins the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to explain what he sees as the impact of the extinction of experience on children’s psychological, emotional and physical health. It’s an important read, but most interesting for me was his disinterest in using the phrase “environmental education,” substituting instead the phrase “environment-based education” or even “experiential education.” Nonetheless, he’s onto something.
My family just finished a three-week vacation on Deer Isle off the coast of Maine just west of Acadia. We whalewatched out of Bar Harbor, kayaked a cove, ventured aboard a lobster boat to participate in a marine education program, threw lobsters back into the ocean, watched barnacles feed, and I personally took a pelagic birding cruise to see two life birds, puffins and razorbills. We paid a lot for these experiences, and we were never alone on any of them. People want contact with nature.
This is not news. The difference is that I think we need to increase the sophistication with which we both choose and market our authentic experiences. The nature walk is not enough. If I lead a group to see, say, the annual red knot migration on the Delaware Bay, I need to know something about that migration, introduce the program’s participants with researchers, let the participants perhaps participate in some piece of the research, deepen the complexity of the experience. That’s the authenticity we need. And can sell. And they will buy.
5.Deepen your programming
Directly related to offering authentic experiences is deepening our programming. As I just mentioned, we’ve leaned too heavily on standard tricks like the nature walk and the nature craft. Looking at the calendars of a variety of nature centers, there is a similarity to them that is almost startlingly bland, almost cookie cutter in approach.
We need to break the old tired mold. Try new things. Look at what zoos, science museums, art museums, and other cultural institutions offer—and adapt generously. Invite a chamber music ensemble to play a nature-inspired piece of classical music outside at the peak of fall colors while local celebrities read selections from Thoreau and Emerson. Discuss lobster ecology over a fundraising lobster dinner, noting the adaptations of the various body parts while actually devouring them. Have Philadelphia Eagles co-lead a trip to visit bald eagle nesting sites. On Earth Day get a thousand kids to stand together and recite the Declaration of Interdependence. This fall, my organization is teaming up with the nonprofit Living Beyond Breast Cancer to offer Hiking Beyond Breast Cancer, a vigorous outdoor walk cross-promoted by both organizations that hopes to attract new people while advocating outdoor exercise as an antidote and balm to cancer.
Here’s a controversial idea: team up with a church or synagogue to offer a nature walk discussing Noah—measure the ark as you walk, discuss biodiversity.
We have to work harder to find programming that captures the imagination of the community and attracts larger, different segments of the community, creating a buzz around your center and what you are up to. You are the place people want to go to because everything you do is so interesting—relevant, up-to-date, hip even, impossible to miss in the incredibly cluttered landscape of nonprofit educational opportunities. When the wave hits, people will come to you automatically.
6. Understand and use the media
One day circa 1991 I received a phone call by the host of a Philadelphia TV talk show—I was talking to a local TV celebrity. I was very excited, and thought I had finally arrived. Turns out he was doing a show on global warming, and wanted a guest with a strong environmental viewpoint, someone to say unequivocally the world was heating, we were all going to die soon, the other side is fiddling while Rome burns. Biting my tongue, I told him that wasn’t what I would say—I’d say here’s what we know so far, here’s what we haven’t figured out yet, here’s even some interesting anomalies that we just don’t understand. I built up to my big point—this is arguably the largest experiment in world history. Needless to say, I didn’t make the cut. The media wants two viewpoints, Strong A and Strong B, and the two have to be directly contradictory—As Dan Akroyd’s character would yell, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” That’s why TV talk shows has been left to the activists, to the Paul Ehrlichs and Barry Commoners, because this is just not how education operates.
Still, this is a media-centric cultured obsessed with image, and environmental educators are routinely left out of this culture, except for the occasional Earth Day story or maybe the occasional photo-op of kids collecting in ponds or holding a snake. One of my educators was assigned the responsibility of being our public relations person as well, and I only realized this year I’d been doing it all wrong.
She learned from me that that responsibility entailed simply writing weekly press releases about what was new—not establishing regular, routine, ongoing contact with local press officials to court them and cultivate their interest in possibly bigger stories.
We don’t work the press the way we should. Maybe we occasionally hire consultants to do our public relations with us, and maybe that experience isn’t successful. But when the wave hits, the media will be looking for stories and local angles. And you want them to find you—you the center, and you the director.
The media covers people far more than it covers issues, so we discuss the war in Iraq when we have a Cindy Sheehan camped out on the president’s doorstep. You want the media to know who you are, to know that you have strong opinions about things, and to seek you out when the wave hits and they want the local story. There are up sides and down sides to becoming the story yourself—after all, your center, its mission and the land you preserve is the larger story. But often the person is the gateway to the larger story, the access point, the portal.
Your center is the antidote to global warming and species loss; you are the yin to the dark story’s yang. Positive media coverage can only result in stronger program response, larger membership, more volunteers, perhaps even stronger foundation support.
7. The hardest one of all to promote– Embrace technology
The average American child spends something like 30 hours per week staring at a screen of some kind, screens usually loaded with commercial content. Given that we are now putting TV screens into the back seats of SUVs, it seems that number is only going to go up. Technology is a powerful force, its own tidal wave that has already altered the cultural landscape—we have become a global village as technology flattens the world and enables China and India to become the new economic powerhouses.
Environmental educators share a neo-Luddite bent, interested in getting kids away from computers and into nature, away from the virtual world and into the real one, out of the web and into the web of life. Fine.
But the public is technologically sophisticated, possesses very high visual literacy, expects technology everywhere, and not only knows how to use technology to understand the world, but wants to use technology for that purpose. We need to practice a very delicate balancing act, wielding technology as a tool to educate, illuminate, and perhaps entice. It also makes us relevant. The era of the lift flap and the touch table is not over— these tools are timeless—but certainly need to be heavily, radically supplemented. The buzz board simply cannot be the nature center’s most advanced technology. Failure to use technology renders us quaint and obsolete while overuse of technology renders us shallow. The middle ground is hard to find, and astonishingly expensive, but increasingly necessary because of what it can do.
The technological near-future includes voice-activated systems approaching Star Trek, where an entire house might be controlled by a central box that is the TV, the computer, the telephone, the rolodex, the recipe box. Appliances will respond to voice activated requests– the house will start the coffee at 7 a.m. In Bill Gates’s house, flat screens even show changing artwork. This will all be trickling down to the middle class soon. This technology is seductive, but is increasingly the norm in what the public expects, especially as larger museums and cultural institutions develop the capacity to weave this technology into their exhibitry. The technology wave has already come, and we need to stand with our feet firmly planted in the real world while embracing cutting-edge technology as we can.
That’s the seven action items. Let’s make sure these are the right ones, for too much is riding on the outcome.
In 1970, the stated goal of the newly emergent field of environmental education was to create an enlightened citizenry who understood the environmental implications of their actions. Almost 40 years later, while there have been notable successes, while we have won a few battles, we have essentially lost the war: our citizenry is as ecologically illiterate as ever, maybe even more so, given the decline in our relationship to land and the bewildering complexity of environmental issues. In EE circles, we often talk about access to schools and students, forgetting that perhaps the larger, more important, more difficult issue is access to culture: how can we get environmental concerns into mainstream pop culture.
I do believe that global environmental issues are coalescing and will soon break, and I do believe the wave is coming. Waves crest and disappear—last January’s tsunami we’ve referenced throughout the talk already seems a lifetime ago. The media’s oversaturated coverage of breaking news tires stories out way too soon.
What we really need is a sustained period of interest in the environment—a plateau—a permanent paradigm shift. I also believe that when the wave hits, this time it will last, because the issues are not going to go away, the science is only going to tell us harder realities, we will finally get a White House able to say the word greenhouse with a straight face, and there will be a resurgent interest in action.
To circle back to the beginning, two questions remain: will you be ready? And will the cultural counter punch be enough—or is it too late already?
H. G. Wells, better known for classics like War of the Worlds and the Time Machine, wrote several nonfiction books, including, The Outline of History in 1920. “Human history,” he wrote in a widely quoted remark, “becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe…” But we rarely quote the next sentence that follows: “Yet, clumsily or smoothly, the world, it seems, progresses and will progress.”
The world progresses, perhaps clumsily, and I want environmental education to be an integral part of that world and that progress. When the environment becomes the central organizing principle for civilization, I want to be there, and I want us in this room to be there, standing shoulder to shoulder and ready to offer the world the kinds of opportunities it not only deserves, but will be craving.
So let’s transform from barnacles into dolphins, and start getting ready to surf that very large and very scary wave bearing down on us even as we speak. Thank you.
by Lyanda Haupt
Seattle Audubon Society
Birds are everywhere. Their lives hold myriad ecological lessons, some obvious, some subtle. No matter where we live, or where we teach, there are birds to be found. They may not be wondrous, rare, or exotic. They may be an uninspired mix of starlings and pigeons. But they ARE birds, living definitively avian lives, and as such, they are the perfect subjects for schoolyard studies of bird behavior, flight, social habits, feeding preferences, and much more.
We’ve all seen hot-shot birders, calling out the name of every bird that flies by. It’s easy for teachers to feel intimidated, and believe that since they don’t have that level of competence, or perhaps don’t know the names of any birds at all, that they are not qualified to teach students about birds. The truth is, all you need is a schoolyard with a pigeon or a crow in it, to begin studying birds with some depth. The secrets of birds lie not in their names, but in their lives. Observation is the best, and most direct pathway to learning about our avian neighbors. Explore birds holistically, and learn their names as you go.
The study of birds can complement any environmentally minded program. Avian observation increases understanding of adaptations, species, biodiversity, and food webs. Schoolyard observations can lend depth to concepts such as native versus non-native species, and biodiversity. Watching birds can even complement studies in paleontology, since many prominent geologists now believe that birds are living dinosaurs! With guidance, students can gain competence in data collection and field identification. Perhaps the most enriching aspect of schoolyard birding is that it increases students’ awareness of the natural world as it surrounds them day to day. When they journey to a natural place, they will be awakened to the presence of birds, and ready to see more.
Birdwatching with Kids
The most important thing on a bird walk with young people is to have an enjoyable time that increases their interest in birds and the natural world. You don’t have to be seriously and silently slinking around, stalking birds every second. It’s probably best to go on a bird watching walk – a fun hike punctuated by times that everyone stops to look for birds.
Being in the outdoors, working with binoculars, field guides, and searching for birds is a lot to do. You don’t have to overload the time with planned activities. Here are some simple suggestions that can be incorporated into your walk. These are foundational ideas that can form the basis of a bird walk for any age group or experience level.
Enter a Place Quietly. Groups of people have to be particularly aware of the noise they make. Try to plan your bird walk before a recess, or well after one, so the birds have time to recover from frolicking youth. The less talking on a bird trip the better. If you enter a place quietly and respectfully, the birds will grace you with rare glimpses into their lives.
Starting Off. Sometimes a group of students will be pretty hyped up at the beginning. Try to start with an activity that gets students quieted down and focused on their surroundings. With eyes closed, have students listen for birds around them. Give them some time – four or five full minutes. Have them open their eyes, and still sitting in one place, quietly notice any signs of birdlife around them, without trying to identify or analyze any of it.
Experiment with Birding Methods. What works best? Some birders walk around and just see what they see. Some birders see a bird from afar, and then quietly sneak up on it until they have a good view. Some birders sit quietly in one place that looks promising and wait for the birds to come near. Have students experiment with these methods, and see what they think works best. Do some birding strategies work better for some species of birds than others?
Use Real Names. Young people are ABLE and WILLING to learn the real names for birds, other animals, and plants. Look at how well some five year olds can rattle off the long scientific names for dinosaurs! Use complete real names for the species of birds that you know, and encourage students to do the same. If the name of a species is difficult, repeat it together several times.
“Pishing.” This is a secret technique that birders use to get birds to come out of the bushes and show themselves. Make a sort of spitty pishing sound – “PISHHH-PISHHH-PISHHH.” Many birds are curious about this sound, and will come out to investigate. If you sit very still and don’t talk (other than to PISH) some birds may come startlingly close. Very fun!
Field Notes. Keeping a field notebook is probably the best thing anyone can do to learn to appreciate birds in the field. It’s a place to record individual observations, sketches, strange things that birds do, new species, and literally anything that occurs during the day that may help a student to remember a bird walk, and the birdlife experienced. It’s a place to ask questions and seek answers from the birds themselves. By putting pencil to paper in the field notebook, observations become crystallized, and experience becomes focused. Field Notes can include a record of the day – weather, time, other observers, etc., a list of species seen and their behaviors, vocalizations, habitats, sketches and descriptions, anything that makes the experience memorable.
Expect UFOs. Even expert birders encounter unidentifiable flying bird-objects. Let the kids know that not all birds can be identified by everyone, and that’s O.K. It’s part of the mystery that keeps bird watching fun.
A Note About Attracting Birds to School Grounds.
There are many great resources that can assist you in choosing native plants and feeders to create an avian sanctuary on school grounds. With work, you can attract new species to an urban area. Just make sure to use feeders specific to the kinds of birds you want to attract, and take steps to minimize use by non-natives. Don’t let worries over the long-term existence of your feeding station stop you. Contrary to popular belief, it IS okay to feed birds for awhile, and then to stop. Birds use feeders because it’s easy, not because they have to. When your feeders are removed, the birds will go back to natural sources for food.
Birds are everywhere! One great thing about watching birds is that you can pretty much always find one. Crows, pigeons, and starlings are all good examples of “birdness” that are readily available. They are walking around vocalizing and exhibiting interesting behaviors all day long. Even if you can’t swing a major field trip or uncover an exciting avian rarity, you can take advantage of the birdlife that’s around you everyday, and engage birds as a powerful educational tool.
Resources at the Seattle Audubon Society
Seattle Audubon offers an educational kit called “Birds in the Field.” Ten field bags contain binoculars, field guides, bird calls, and field notebooks for each student to keep. A leader’s pack contains all of the above, plus flash cards and the booklet “Sharing Birds With Students,” to help you get started with field guides, binoculars, identification, taking walks and field trips, using field notes, etc.
We also have two other kits to complement bird studies. “Symphony of the Birds” is an audio-visual introduction to avian vocalizations. “Feathers, Fossils, Flight” is a hands-on introduction to the adaptations that birds have for flight. It includes a reproduction of the first fossil bird Archaeopteryx, as well as many wings, bones, feathers, and more”
Kits are available to rent for one week at a time, or a Seattle Audubon naturalist can visit your site to present a program. Contact Lyanda Haupt, Seattle Audubon Education Coordinator at (206)523-0722, firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a short introduction to the species that you are likely to encounter in an urban or suburban schoolyard. With a little practice and observation, the various species can come alive in their uniqueness. Many of the common schoolyard birds are non-native birds that thrive in disturbed habitats. While it may make them less interesting ecologically, many of these birds exhibit fascinating behaviors, and are quite intelligent. They are still great tools for learning about birds in general.
Eurasian Starling Many people call starlings “blackbirds,” because they are about the size of a blackbird, and they are certainly black. Actually, they are not closely related. The starling can be separated from the locally common Red-winged blackbird by its yellow bill, and spangled plumage. In the summer, the starling looks like it is covered with iridescent jewels, as bright flecks of gold mingle with its black feathers. People are often mistakenly convinced that a bird they have seen up close could not possibly be a starling, because their bird was so pretty! Winter starlings are more drab, and the first-year birds are all brown, with a black beak and legs.
Starlings were introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800’s, and have proved to be an ecological disaster. They compete with native birds for nest sites and food, and are implicated in the decline of many sensitive native species. Even so, starlings are extremely intelligent and interesting. They are one of the best bird mimics in the country, imitating the calls of gulls, killdeer, cats, honking horns, and whatever else strikes their fancy. Listen for their long, fanciful whistles, and complex vocalizations. Starlings can learn to talk as well as mynah birds and parrots.
Rock Dove Calling the pigeon by its “real” common name, the Rock Dove, makes it sound a little more interesting. Like the starling, the Rock Dove is not native to our area. Rock Doves were introduced from their native homes in Europe, North Africa, and India. Most of the birds that we see in the schoolyard are passerines, or perching birds. The Rock Dove is not – its feet are adapted for roosting, rather than grasping tightly onto branches. Pigeons are unique in that both males and females produce a milk-like substance in their digestive system to feed their young. The baby doves plunge their bills down the parents’ throat and suck out the milk. The typical gray and purple pigeon resembles the extinct Passenger Pigeon. The numerous hybrids among city pigeons produce some intriguing color combinations – genetics in action!
House Sparrow Yup. Another introduced bird. And this one isn’t even properly named! Taxonomically, the House Sparrow is not a sparrow at all, but an Old World Finch. Find it at the very end of your field guide, rather than in the sparrow section. These are the small, brown birds that jump around under your feet at outdoor cafes, awaiting the crumbs of your bagel. They also chirp about the shrubbery of schoolyards, and nest noisily beneath the eves. The males have a gray cap and black throat. Females are a drab gray-brown, with a light brown eye stripe. House Sparrows have a beak made for seed-eating. Watch them forage on the ground for bits of plant material.
American Crow The amazing black bird with the raucous “CAW CAW CAW!” The crow is one of the most intelligent birds out there. They are known to use tools, problem-solve, mourn the loss of family members, and PLAY. Crows are scavengers that will eat just about anything, but they prefer meat. Even though they are so large, crows are passerines, or “songbirds,” just like robins and chickadees.
Steller’s Jay The Steller’s Jay is in the crow family – closely related to the larger American Crow. If you have trees around your schoolyard, you may attract this brilliant blue bird with the unwieldy black crest. Like crows, Steller’s Jays are quite intelligent, and will think up all kinds of mischievous way to win more food than all the other birds. They will even sit at feeders and imitate the call of a Red-tailed Hawk to scare smaller birds away. Jays can cause problems for other birds, attacking and eating their eggs and nestlings.
Black-capped Chickadee This is another bird that requires some cover – at least small trees or shrubs. These tiny gray and white birds with black masks are a birdwatcher’s treasure. They are common, but constantly delightful, gleaning insects, caterpillars, and seeds from the branches. The chickadee repeats its own name in its call – a nasal “chickadee-dee-dee.”