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Birding for Beginners

Originally appears in the Summer 2014 issue

WE SAT QUIETLY IN THE FOREST, swatting mosquitoes and listening intently to the many species of birds singing in the trees around us. Sarah carefully pressed the button on the boom box, broad­casting the breeding call of the male black-throated blue warbler. Within seconds, Kevin focused his binoculars above us and whispered excitedly, “There he is!”

In response to our taped calls, a male black-throated blue warbler had zipped into the tree above us and was calling – bzzz-bzzz-bzzz-bzzzeeee. Denise carefully checked ‘singing male’ in the correct column on our data sheet and we grinned at each other across our little circle.

This was the culmination of weeks of focused study and discussion in our fifth grade classroom – about songbirds, their annual migration journeys, songs, calls, plumages, behav­iors, and how they depend on specific habitats for breeding. Students investigated the ecosystems in the forest preserve across the street from our school, gathering and analyzing data about birds and their breeding habitats.

The program had been designed to build excitement for both students and teachers about outdoor learning, and relies heavily on methodology from Birds in Forested Landscapes, a citizen science initiative from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. As we learned more about the program’s meth­ods and requirements, we became increasingly confident that we could use it to assist our fifth graders in developing the necessary knowledge and skills for gathering meaning­ful data. Students gather and submit data on what they dis­cover about species identified by Cornell as of conservation interest. Student groups examine their data critically and ask scientific questions that could be answered by the class’ data. The study is fun and involving for the students and can lead to extensive discussion about birds and the forest and the process of doing science. The goals of the unit are to:

• identify four selected bird species in the field using visual and auditory cues

• describe and evaluate a variety of characteristics of for­ested habitats

• gather and record field data on bird song and behavior

• ask scientific questions that could be answered by our data

• analyze data and draw conclusions to determine breeding presence of selected bird species as well as determining answers to other questions

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Renee Bachman is a teacher at Leeds Elementary School in Northampton, Massachusetts who cherishes any opportunity to get children outside and involved in real life science. Ted Watt has worked at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts as an educator and naturalist since 1984. He loves exploring outdoors with young people and adults, observing, wondering, and looking for connections.