Creating the Need to Pay Attention
Field trips and adventures in the woods are tremendously important experiences for children, especially those students that don’t often get to spend time in a natural setting. Some of the most important, lasting results of good Environmental Education are the heartfelt connections that young people make with nature. They value the natural world because they have experienced first hand the beauty and magic of living ecological systems. To really feel this in a personal way, the kids have to go outside and experience it.
by Chris Laliberte
he excitement of exploring outside with friends and classmates can turn a well behaved class into a pretty raucous crowd, and in all the commotion, it’s very easy for students to pay more attention to each other than to the woods around them. And while they might huddle up at each interpretive spot for a brief lesson or activity, what teacher or educator could possibly be there with each student for the whole walk, helping them learn from each moment as they explore the landscape with all their senses? The trick to making the entire outing an intense learning experience is to find ways to ensure that the students are invested in paying close attention the whole time.
“Tree Tag” is the classic example of creating a need to pay attention. Kids love to play tag, and they NEED a base, some place to avoid the tagger. So when base is whatever kind of tree the teacher calls out, the kids suddenly have a very real need to be able to identify trees correctly, so they can get to base. I love to watch what happens when kids disagree about correctly identifying trees, and they have to prove to each other what kind of tree it is. Tree Tag, however, illustrates a deeper point around creating need. A game of tag is a boisterous, wild, hectic thing. But remarkably, within this game is a fantastic heightening of awareness. The danger, the risk of being tagged, or the need to tag someone, is visceral. It creates physical and chemical responses in the body that affect awareness and the learning process. Adrenalated states provide a powerful opportunity for learning. Notice that this suggests an interesting point: in Tree Tag, the key dynamic for learning is the creation of a certain amount of anxiety, or a state of discomfort. This creates a very strong need to pay attention, and then the game focuses the heightened awareness onto something very detailed and specific — in this case, the differences in bark, leaf, branching pattern and color of different trees. By paying careful attention, the student can resolve the anxiety and get to someplace “safe.”
It’s a testament to the power of the adrenalated state that, more often than not, kids will leave base and venture back out into the fray on their own for another dose. Of course, some students will be reluctant to leave base, so the teacher can keep the game active by announcing that base is now a different kind of tree, and it starts again: more adrenaline, more awareness, more attention to details of different kinds of trees, more good learning about nature.
So how can this dynamic be harnessed so that it is present throughout the whole field trip? Here’s one method that has proved enormously powerful at Wilderness Awareness School. It’s called “Bird Language.”
The basic principle behind Bird Language is that birds love to gossip. They are constantly announcing to each other and the world around them just how they are feeling about their lives at that moment. It’s almost like a town crier who likes the job so much that s/he uses any excuse to make another public announcement. “The forest is calm and happy!” “The forest is still calm and happy!” But what birds love to talk about most of all is danger and peril. Anything that might possibly be a threat is immediately announced and pointed out. Jim Corbett, a famous tracker from India, once mentioned how puzzled he was that anyone could ever get eaten by a tiger. The birds and monkeys are so loud and aggressive in announcing the presence of any tiger, and even following along above it in the treetops, screaming out their warnings, that it seemed inconceivable to him that anyone could be taken unaware by a tiger in the jungle. By coming to understand Bird Language, students can learn to recognize all the movement and activity going on in the forest around them. They’ll know when raptors or other predators are moving through, or when animals like deer or raccoons are sneaking away.
Using Bird Language with your students starts with creating the need to pay attention to what the birds are saying. For some younger students, the possibility of seeing fairies or unicorns works wonders at getting them to listen for the announcements of the birds. This is especially good if students are already uncomfortable with being outside in the woods and need a little assurance. Our favorite strategy at Wilderness Awareness School is to set up the day so that students are hiking or exploring in small groups, and might at any time be ambushed by another group sneaking up on them. If you don’t have the ability to set up the ambush dynamic, or if the group is older and more callous to the woods, the classic anxiety here in the Pacific Northwest is the threat of the cougar. Wilderness Awareness School is very careful in using this particular set-up for bird language. We let students know that cougars are sneaky but cowardly hunters, who like to attack unseen and avoid a fight or struggle. To really help students feel the anxiety in a visceral way (like the threat of being tagged), you can describe the nerve endings in the canine teeth of the cougar that help it to feel just where to bite on your neck to cleanly sever the spinal column like scissors through a banana . Now, we are careful to point out that cougars don’t normally attack people. But they sometimes can’t help themselves when a really loud, obviously unaware, small, tasty looking person hurries by without paying any attention to the woods at all. But if you notice a cougar, and make yourself look tough, maybe yell at it, then the cougar won’t bother you. They’re really pretty timid once they’ve been found out.
Regardless of what strategy you use to create a need to pay attention, listening to Bird Language can provide the focus for your students’ heightened awareness, and will allow them to resolve their tension and anxiety appropriately. For if they are listening carefully to Bird Language, no cougar or group of kids will be able to sneak up on them without alarming the birds and giving itself away. Really accurate interpretation is a fine art, and requires a lot of practice sitting outside and investigating bird alarms, but mastery is not required for Bird Language to be a remarkably effective learning tool. Here are the basic details your students will need to know to be able to get started successfully:
Bird Language: A Quick Summary
Pay closest attention to the small ground-feeding birds: Robins, Sparrows, Juncos, Wrens, Towhees, etc. They are the best sentries.
Learn to distinguish the Five Voices of the Birds. The first four Baseline Voices indicate that the forest is relatively comfortable, and therefore “in baseline.” The last voice, the alarm, indicates a threat, usually a predator, often a human.
1. The Song: Birds singing their characteristic celebration, they are often loud but the feeling is very comfortable.
2. Companion Calling: Birds in pairs or groups call back and forth to each other regularly, either with their voice or with body movements, just to let each other know that they are alright. Usually this is soft, quiet language. It can occasionally sound scolding if one bird gets out of sight from another and fails to respond quickly enough.
3. Juvenile Begging: Young hatchlings can make quite a racket demanding to be fed. This repetitive whining may sound obnoxious, but don’t mistake it for distress.
4. Territorial Aggression: Generally made by males, this is loud, aggressive language that can sound like alarms, but you’ll notice that it doesn’t bother other birds (females, or birds of other species).
5. The Alarm is dramatically different from the four baseline voices. While the baseline voices sound like someone happily whistling, the alarm sounds like someone yelling for help. Different species sound different, but they all sound terribly upset, worried and nervous, and you’ll find yourself feeling that way too, when you open yourself up to really listening receptively to birds.
Watch the body language of alarming birds:
1. Where does it go when it alarms?
Does it fly up higher into the branches, or down low to the ground? Ground-feeding birds are typically brown, so they like to be down low where they are camouflaged and hidden. The only reason they fly UP is if there’s a threat on the ground. They will fly just high enough to avoid the danger, so how high up they fly is a good indicator of how high the danger can reach. If they go down, it’s because they’ll be safer down low in the thick brush, so it’s either a raptor or a threat that can’t get into the bushes (like a human).
2. Does the bird fly up and then look back to where it came from as it alarms?
If so, it was scared out of its place by something close by on the ground. Does it fly up and look forward, or out and around? If so, it was probably startled by a sound or another bird’s alarm and it is looking for the danger. It usually looks towards the source of the alarm (remember, these birds often look sideways).
3. Does it just fly madly away alarming as it goes? If so, it has been “plowed” out of the area, quite likely by a human.
Those are the very basics of Bird Language; however, the most important aspect of all is the “Secret Lesson” that you don’t even talk about. By attending to bird alarms, students soon realize that they themselves are disturbing the “baseline” of the forest. One of the old sayings from Kenya that young kids heard constantly was “Never disturb a singing bird.” Once they notice that they are scaring all the birds away, they begin to work at not alarming birds, and the transformation that this causes is remarkable. Once oblivious, boisterous and unconnected kids turn into quiet, observant, and respectful participants in the ecological community. Listening to birds now becomes a fabulous tool to encourage heightened awareness and a phenomenal source for amazing close encounters with animals that they want to see, like elk, deer, foxes, and raccoons, because now the birds aren’t warning these animals of the approaching students five minutes before they arrive.
In Wilderness Awareness School’s experience, Bird Language works best initially as the focal point for new students who have been “set up” to pay attention by the cultivation of a state of discomfort, and quite literally gives students the awareness they need to be safe, aware and feel comfortable in the woods. Remember, it will take some time to establish this as a routine for your students. They’ll need plenty of reminders early on. The most effective one is simply “Ssshhh! What was that? Did you hear that alarm?” Above all, have fun with it! You’ll be amazed at the transformation Bird Language can work in your students if you just stick with it.
Chris Laliberte is the Program Director for Wilderness Awareness School, a national not-for-profit environmental education organization based in Duvall, WA which is “dedicated to caring for the earth and our children by fostering appreciation and understanding of nature, community and self,” on the web at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Resources for Bird Language Study
The Language of the Birds and Advanced Bird Language: Reading the Concentric Rings of Nature, beginning and advanced audio series by Jon Young. Available at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Backyard Bird Walk and Marshland Bird Walk, and other recordings by Lang Elliott. Available at http://www.naturesound.com
Kamana One: Exploring Natural Mysteries, by Jon Young, part one of Wilderness Awareness School’s four-level independent study Kamana Naturalist Training Program. Includes bird language, tracking, wilderness living skills, traditional herbalism, and naturalist mentoring. Available at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Jungle Lore, by Jim Corbett. A powerful narrative from the Indian jungle which includes Bird Language lore.
Bird Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species, a unique new resource for studying birds by Mark Elbroch , Eleanor Marks, and Diane C. Boreto.
A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vols. I,II, and III, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Peterson Field Guides: Western Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson.
A Birds World, permanent exhibit on Bird Language at the Boston Museum of Science. http://www.mos.org
Photo by Braden McKinnon 2013.
We need to provide opportunities for students to establish connections with the natural world, to be in awe of its power and beauty.
t was February 2012 in northwestern Ontario. I was in teachers college and my outdoor, environmental education cohort was on a winter camping trip. Cold winds blew outside, but inside of our cabin it was cozy as my peers snuggled up under blankets, ready for story time. I was about to share with them Stuart McLean’s “Burd”, a short-story from the author’s Home from the Vinyl Café.
“Burd” tells the story of Dave, a second hand record store owner, who becomes a reluctant new birder when an unexpected visitor begins to frequent Dave’s backyard birdfeeder. The visitor is a summer tanager, completely off-course from its usual winter habitat of Mexico or Brazil. Dave comes to cherish the time he spends with his bird; waking up early to feed the bird, and coming home from work at lunch so that the bird does not go hungry. When, on an early May morning, Dave discovers that his bird has left, he is heartbroken and hopes she will return next winter.
“Burd”, in its simple way, speaks to the pain and gratification that can come with the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Can you recall a time when the natural world overwhelmed you? Have you ever felt in awe of the beauty of nature? Have you sat in salutation to the sun, or in quiet reverence to the river? Has nature left you speechless? When I posed these questions to my peers, in anticipation of reading “Burd”, they shared stories about thunder storms and the stars. Of canoe trips that they wished had never ended. One friend talked about that moment at night when you roll over in bed and catch a glimpse of the full moon outside your window. Magic moments, courtesy of our natural world.
But what about heartbreak? Nature provides those moments too. As educators of environmental literacy we can all surely reflect back on moments of loss, as something from the natural world was taken from us. It may have been as small as returning to your childhood home to find that the tall birch tree in your front yard had been cut down. Or it might be bigger – those lost fights against short-term gains and corporate interests that take away our rivers, our lakes, and our forests.
Does this sense of loss have a place in our classrooms? Indeed it is our students’ generation that is going to be handed the consequences of greed and inaction – rising sea levels, frequent and severe natural disasters, a complete disconnect from the natural world. If we continue down our current path, their losses will be far greater than anything we have experienced.
And yet, a feeling of loss necessitates that a connection has been established in the first place. In a world where children and adults alike are spending increasingly less time outdoors, these connections to the natural world are precious. For every story we have of loss, we each have a million more of those little moments of taking time for nature – time to be in awe, to slow down and find connection. If it weren’t for these moments, we wouldn’t be working as hard as we are to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for our children. The environmental movement wouldn’t exist. Dave’s summer tanager may not have survived an unplanned Canadian winter.
It is moments to build connection, awe, and wonder then that we must help create for our students. Moments that connect our students to the natural world, for not only is time in nature good for them, but they will then be good to the natural world. We can share our own experiences and the experiences of others, like Dave’s romance with a bird. But we must also provide opportunities for our students to have their own experiences – to establish connections with the natural world, to be in awe of its power and beauty. We know this already, it is why we seek out resources like CLEARING to inspire us to rely less on our four-walled classroom.
The most powerful story I can share, of my own experience creating space for awe, is from a most unlikely place: a suburban Grade 8 classroom. It was mid-December, the air was chilly, the sky was clear, and anticipation was building…snow would be coming soon. And sure enough it did, just as I started an afternoon lesson on local hunger issues. I didn’t notice the snow at first, but rather the sudden excitement on students’ faces as they began whispering and furtively pointing to the window. I looked outside and there it was – the first snow of the year! Big, beautiful snowflakes whipping around outside of the window.
I had two choices: as a student teacher I could maintain “classroom order”, aware that my teacher advisor was evaluating me, or I could allow space for awe. I chose the latter: “It’s snowing – look outside!” And then my students cheered. Suddenly, without any prompt from me, they ran to the window and cheered for snow. I cheered with them and also made a promise to myself: if I was ever lucky enough to be in front of a classroom again when snow fell for the first time outside, my class would bundle up, run outside, and lift our faces to the sky.
I made this promise because the first snow only happens once a year. Because nature has a way of spontaneously providing beautiful and powerful teaching moments, with no lesson plan required. And because these are the moments that students remember, and are the reason us educators do the work that we do.
Dave was heartbroken when his bird left. Not only had he lost a bird that he had come to care for, but he had also lost that very real connection to the natural world. In a world that is continually spinning faster and faster, Dave had found something small and vulnerable to focus on and to care for. He had been gifted with a reason to sit and watch nature – and to wonder. Why did this bird come to his backyard, of all places? How did it get there? Would it return? Dave did not know all of the answers and that was okay, because the answers were not what mattered. What mattered was that Dave knew how his bird looked in warm sunlight, and from what direction she flew in from the hedge to be fed. That is the beauty of “Burd” –it makes you want to go outside, sit by a bird feeder, and see what happens.
Let us make a promise to ourselves that as educators we will allow more time for awe. For wonder. For connection. That we will consider it a lesson well done if all our students do is sit by a bird feeder to see what happens.
Kim McCrory is a certified teacher and experienced outdoor educator from Ontario, but now calls Victoria, British Columbia home. Kim works for Sierra Club BC as the organization’s environmental educator, traveling the province to reconnect students with the wild products of our Temperate Rainforest.
McLean, Stuart. 1998. Home from the Vinyl Café. Toronto, ON: Viking by Penguin Books Canada Ltd. P. 256. ISBN 0-14-027743-9.
by Sandy Frost and Ben Swecker
For many people, a trip to Alaska is the dream of a lifetime. Yet cost and logistics keep many people away. In 2002, a group of dedicated educators joined forces to make such a visit— if only a ‘virtual’ visit—a reality for thousands of children across the Western Hemisphere. Blending good, old-fashioned interpretation and education know-how with technology, the Winging Northward—A Shorebird’s Journey distance-learning project brought the amazing resources of the Copper River Delta, Alaska to a diverse audience. This innovative and ambitious project developed over three years. The following article chronicles the miles traveled, and those yet to come, for this effort.
The Copper River Delta
Each spring, a wildlife spectacle on the scale of the great game migrations of Africa takes place throughout coastal Alaska. Along intertidal mudflats, millions of shorebirds rest and refuel on their long journey to their breeding grounds in western and northern Alaska. These migratory birds rely on critical wetland habitats throughout their journey. Many people are passionate about shorebird conservation and education. No one who has had the opportunity to witness this spectacle can fail to understand the critical need to conserve migratory birds and the habitats that they rely on. Shorebirds, in their spectacular and dramatic migration, can provide a “hook” for educating people about the plight of Neotropical migratory birds and wetlands.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Copper River Delta to North America’s migratory birds. This productive coastal wetland supports a rich and varied array of fish, wildlife, and human uses. Brown bears stalk the tidal marshes where trumpeter swans nest, coho salmon spawn in groundwater-fed streams, and mountain goats scale the rugged peaks.
Much of this incomparable wetland ecosystem is public land, managed by the Chugach National Forest. Recognizing the significance of the Copper River Delta to the fish and wildlife resources of Alaska, in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) stipulated the delta be managed chiefly for the “conservation of fish and wildlife and their habitats.” Throughout the National Forest System, there is only one other area with a similar congressional mandate.
Over the last decade, the Cordova Ranger District successfully developed an innovative education and interpretive program focused on the fish and wildlife resources of the Copper River Delta. However, the relatively small number of people reached with their education effort continued to be a concern. In an effort to widen the education ‘net’ and leverage their limited resources, the district gathered a powerful coalition of partners who shared their passion and goals. The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network stepped up to the plate as the lead nongovernmental partner, while the US Fish & Wildlife Service (National Conservation Training Center) provided critical guidance and support. Finally, the linchpin of the effort was the exceptional work of the Prince William Network—an educational institution affiliated with the Prince William County Schools in Manassas, Virginia.
Although these partners brought great energy and vision to the table, they did not bring large pots of money. Instead, the early efforts of the project were focused on securing funding through a number of sources. A project of this scope requires a significant investment. The partners were successful in securing over $100,000 in competitive grants from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Alaska Coastal Fund, Ducks Unlimited, Wild Outdoor World Magazine, the US Forest Service—Conservation Education grants, and US Forest Service-International Programs. These funds were matched with generous in-kind contributions of labor, materials, and services.
Through the generous support of program partners and sponsors, the entire program was available at no charge to students and teachers.
“Winging Northward—A Shorebird’s Journey” is a comprehensive education project focused around a live, satellite-broadcast “field trip” from the Copper River Delta on May 8, 2002—the peak of shorebird migration. Although the highlight of the project was the broadcast, an entire web of supporting materials was spun around the televised event. The partners launched a dynamic website in November 2001, supported a live webcast, produced supplemental education materials, and developed an evaluation program.
In an age when it is challenging for teachers to arrange natural resource field trips, especially in urban areas, an electronic field trip reaches kids where they are—in the classroom. The ‘virtual’ field trip used satellite and internet technology to beam the shorebird excitement into classrooms in Alaska, Canada, the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
Teachers, parents, and students used online monthly activities and entered a poster contest to prepare for the field trip. The website offered a teacher resources center and exciting classroom activities that supported the monthly theme and were correlated to national education standards. Maya, the western sandpiper, was the program and website host and led children through her world as she journeyed from her wintering grounds in Mexico, north, to her breeding grounds in western Alaska.
Just as shorebirds know no boundaries, so did the project reach across the Western Hemisphere. Partners in Mexico provided critical links to the Spanish-speaking world and resource information about the shorebird’s wintering grounds. The website was bilingual and the broadcast was simultaneously translated in Spanish. The English broadcast was also close- captioned.
Interactive elements pulled the students into the wetland world of the Copper River Delta in the grand finale broadcast. Students learned about shorebird adaptations, wetland habitats, and migration across international boundaries. They met biologists and local Cordovans, watched as Alaskan students explored the mudflats and observed the swirling shorebird flocks, and interacted through e-mail, fax, and phone to relay questions and game answers. From the Virginia studio, classrooms won prizes—such as a 4-foot fleece shorebird—during the mystery game.
The project also featured a live webcast during the broadcast. This webcast reached many additional children and was available, on-demand, for six weeks after the live program. The combination of satellite and internet technology assured the broadcast was accessible to the largest possible audience.
Marketing for the project included a full-page advertisement and feature story in SatLink Magazine (the leading publication for distance-learning programs), a full-color brochure sent to schools across the country, numerous notices posted on educational and resource list serves, presentations to professional organizations, and rigorous working of established networks.
Looking back at a project, and analyzing its strengths and weaknesses, is an important step that’s often skipped in education and interpretive projects. Realizing the value of a rigorous
evaluation for future distance learning projects, the partners have developed a comprehensive plan to take a critical look at the effort and share that information with others.
This evaluation includes informal feedback from teachers and students, and a pre- and post- assessment test that will quantify the educational effectiveness of the project. These results are being synthesized, but preliminary results show an excellent educational response. Test results suggest that students showed a 20% increase in knowledge about shorebirds after they watched the program.
The partners are also committed to producing follow-up projects that will leverage the educational value and life of Winging Northward. These projects will be available by December 2003, on a CD and will include a project report, complete curriculum, complete website, an edited version of the broadcast, and supplemental information.
We estimate that well over 300,000 children took part in the live broadcast. Over 850 sites in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico registered for the program. During the broadcast, 1266 emails flooded the network.
Technology makes all the world our backyard. By forming coalitions, rigorously focusing on educational objectives, and celebrating what makes our piece of the world special, the partners effectively reached children across the Western Hemisphere.
Winging Northward brought shorebirds and wetlands to kids who may never have the chance to experience hundreds of thousands of migratory birds teeming on mudflats and swirling in the air. They didn’t come back from the electronic field trip muddy, but they learned that everyone, whether urban or suburban, plays a role in conservation. When the broadcast was over and the shorebirds moved on, students carried with them a little piece of a national treasure—the Chugach National Forest. Our vision is that they will channel that energy into nurturing a local habitat.
For More Information
“Winging Northward—A Shorebird’s Journey” http://shorebirds.pwnet.org/ Chugach National Forest http://www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/cordova Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival http://www.ptialaska.net/~midtown/ Sister Schools Shorebird Project http://sssp.fws.gov/
Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network
Reviews by Patricia Richwine, Ph.D.
As we, optimistically, raked the last leaves from our yard and started to prepare for winter, we brought the wrought iron plant hanger, which had until just recently held a flowering basket, closer to the house where we could hang our feeder and watch an assortment of birds that live in or near our back yard in the winter. Almost immediately the birds returned. A little hesitant at first but then with more confidence they came. The mourning doves, among the ground feeders, were not even frightened away by a couple of pesky squirrels. I keep a pair of binoculars by the kitchen window for, if you will, a birds-eye view of the feeder and of all the species it attracts.
As usual, I wondered just what kinds of birds there were flying back and forth in a feeding frenzy several times a day. That led me to a few new field guides and bird books, written for children or other beginning ornithologists. Perhaps you’ll want to add these to your collection or at least place one by the binoculars at your kitchen window. (more…)
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.”