Bird Behavior, Kid Behavior

I taught an ornithology class for a group of seventh graders this afternoon.  As I often do, I started out by trying to convey to them that birds are something I’m passionate about, not just something I’m assigned to teach them about. “I own my own binoculars,” I said. “I own about five field guides.  I keep a list of the bird species I’ve seen.”  As I told them this, one girl in particular – twelve years old going on twenty-one, you know the type – was eyeing me with scorn, like keeping a life bird list made me the weirdest, most uncool person she’d ever met.

After we’d done an activity matching photos of birds’ bills and feet to the behaviors they’re adapted for, I passed out binoculars to each of them and we headed for a nearby pond that’s often a good place to see herons and egrets and ibises, flashy birds that are good for impressing kids.  At first it looked like there wasn’t much activity there and I was worried I was going to lose their interest, but then came the anhinga.

It appeared swimming as anhingas often do, with only its head and its impossibly long, slender neck out of the water, like some kind of miniature sea monster.  In its beak was a fish, which glinted in the sunlight as it struggled.  The bird was making for the bank at top speed.  Twelve seventh-graders, two chaperones, and I watched the race: would the anhinga make it to land with its prize before it lost its grip and the fish escaped?  Finally the gangly bird reached its goal, hopped up onto a branch, and gulped down its lunch.

Miss twelve-going-on-twenty-one had followed the drama through her binoculars.  Now she lowered them and turned to me. “I didn’t get before, why someone would ever want to just stand around looking at birds,” she said. “Now I get it.  This is cool.”

So that was my day.

Kids Say the Darndest… Well, You Know

This is just a quickie post before I go to bed, but I was thinking back to something a fifth-grader said to me today at lunch, shortly before he and his classmates were to leave Jekyll Island and head home.  He was lamenting the fact that he had to go back to normal school after his three days at the environmental education center.  “It’s just so cool,” he said fervently, “when what you’re learning about is right there in front of you!”

There you go, straight from the horse’s – uh, child’s – mouth, the justification for outdoor, place-based education boiled down to its simplest form.  Even the fact that the school day here is far longer than his conventional one at home (our afternoon classes don’t end until almost five, and there are often evening classes as well, a long day for an eleven-year-old) didn’t dim his enthusiasm.  This is just the latest addition to my store of memories of kids’ light bulb moments, like the girl who commented thoughtfully that demonstrations are much easier to understand than explanations, or the seventh-grader who suddenly got the concept of adaptation for the first time when I showed her how a swimming crab’s legs are different from a land crab’s.  You never know what will get that spark going.

Environmental education: where what you’re learning about is right in front of you.

Intrinsic Value

For an environmental educator, particularly one working with kids, it’s important to always emphasize why we should even care about the organisms and ecosystems around us.  Why is a salt marsh more than just non-potable water with grass growing in it?  Why isn’t the only good snake a dead snake?  I always have to have a list of reasons I can rattle off.  Marshes are important because they protect us from hurricanes and filter water and provide a nursery for economically important species.  Birds are important because they disperse seeds and eat nuisance insects, because they provide recreation for hunters and birders, etc., etc., etc.

Somewhere way down on the list someone might mention the cultural significance of birds – the Bald Eagle as a patriotic symbol, for example.  And below that, an afterthought, one might toss in the phrase “intrinsic value.”  Birds are cool.  Just because.

It bothers me immensely that intrinsic value is the almost-forgotten tail-end of the list of reasons to care about birds.

Don’t get me wrong.  If talking about mosquito control and the economic significance of birding will get more people interested in conservation, I’m all for it, and I also understand that the concept of intrinsic value gets into ethics and philosophy in a way that’s above the heads of most of the middle-schoolers I’m teaching.  But it’s important.

Birds (and marshes and frogs and insects and what have you) have value simply by existing.  If they had no economic value whatsoever, birds would still have a right to exist.  It’s incredibly arrogant to rate other species solely based on how they benefit us.  Every species has a necessary role to play in the functioning of its ecosystem, whether it’s perceptible to us or not.

When I took my first introductory zoology class in college – five years ago seems like a lifetime now – the professor diligently pointed out all the instances of anthropomorphism in my lab reports, curbing what she (perhaps correctly) saw as a bad habit.  Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics to animals or non-living things; in science writing it’s considered bad form to imply that an animal might be frightened or angry or excited, despite the fact that anyone who’s ever lived with a dog or a cat knows that animals experience all these things.  In my opinion, the greater sin is not anthropomorphism but anthropocentrism, regarding humans as the most important species on the planet and measuring everything else by how we can benefit from it.

The Palm Warblers I saw on the golf course this evening were passing through on their way to their winter home in Central America or the Caribbean.  I have no idea whether any of them ever ate a mosquito that might have caused someone an itchy bite otherwise, or how many birders have ever looked at one of them with an expensive pair of binoculars that helped stimulate the economy, but I do know that the world would be a lesser place without Palm Warblers.  Here’s hoping that’s a world we’ll never have to experience.

Environmental Education à la… Spongebob?

When you think of educational television for kids, this may not be the first thing that comes to mind:

Yeah, I can’t believe it either, but lately I find myself using Spongebob as a point of reference when teaching kids about the natural history of marine invertebrates.  It started when I told a class that the clam whose shell I was holding was a filter feeder, and started to explain what filter feeding is only to have one of them pipe up say, “Oh yeah, like Spongebob!”  Apparently the cartoon occasionally shows him filter feeding just like a real sponge.  Now I find myself doing some Googling to figure out whether Mr. Krabs is a hermit crab or a true crab.  If he’s a true crab, has he ever been depicted molting, I wonder?

It isn’t just Spongebob, either; the other bit of pop culture that seems to come up regularly is Finding Nemo.  When I take kids to the salt marsh we talk about how the marsh serves as a nursery for baby fish, who are much safer from predators there than in the open ocean.  “Like how Nemo was supposed to stay on the reef?”  Yes.  Exactly.  Where the barracudas couldn’t get him.

Honestly, if it teaches kids something about nature, I am all for it.  Just so long as they understand that sea stars don’t really wear swim trunks!

Laaaateral Liiiiiine, Operculum and Gills…

To the tune of “Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes”:

Dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, caudal!  Pelvic, caudal!
Dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, caudal!  Pelvic, caudal!
Lateral line, operculum and gills!
Dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, caudal!  Pelvic, caudal!

…And don’t forget the anal fin!

This has been stuck in my head all afternoon.  You’re welcome.  This would be a longer, less random post, except I have to get my stuff together to lead a night walk on the beach.  The season has started, I’m teaching again, and all is right with the world.

P.S.  Why yes, I do have mad skillz with MS Paint.

Bye-Bye Buckeye State

Once again, I’m not dead; I’ve just been having one of those weeks where real life takes over and doesn’t leave time for extraneous things like blogging.  Interesting nature stuff continues to happen – there are monarch caterpillars on the milkweed outside, and I took campers on a field trip to a fish hatchery this morning – but I just haven’t had time and energy to photograph and write.

Anyway, this is my last week at my job in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  On Saturday I leave for three weeks in Arizona with my parents, and then I’m moving to Georgia to start my new job on Jekyll Island.  I’m super excited for that job, but leaving here is bittersweet; I grew up in Ohio and it will always be home to me.  And I won’t get to see autumn come to these woods.  Looking at the green riot of summer around me now, it’s still hard to believe that when I arrived in January, Glen Helen looked like this:

While I’m visiting my family we’re going to take a road trip out to California and Oregon, during which I will definitely not be blogging.  I’m planning on digging through some old photos and scheduling a few of them to be posted while I’m gone, and when I get back you can expect posts on the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Point Reyes, Redwoods National Park, and Crater Lake.  Until then, take care!

Kids with Good Questions

I was on the trail with campers yesterday and we found some neon yellow mushrooms.  I didn’t know what they were, but one of the kids speculated they might be poisonous, and I said that yeah, sometimes bright colors are an adaptation to warn about something being dangerous.

A couple minutes later one kid, an eleven-year-old boy, said, “Rebecca, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.  What is it?”

“It’s about adaptations.  How do they happen?  I mean, I don’t think a bird just thinks, ‘hey, it would be great to have webbed feet,’ and a while later they appear.”

“Nope, that’s not how it happens.  It’s called natural selection.”  I thought for a minute about what would make a good example.  “Do you know why vultures don’t have feathers on their heads?”


“Because if they did, bacteria from the dead stuff they eat would get caught in the feathers and make them sick.  But imagine that a long time ago there was a normal bird, one with feathers on its head, that liked to eat dead stuff.  It had a bunch of babies, and some of them had a lot of feathers on their heads and some of them didn’t, just randomly, like how we have different hair colors.  And the babies grew up eating dead stuff like their parents did–“

“Oh!  And the ones without feathers wouldn’t get sick!”

“Yeah, exactly, the ones with fewer feathers on their heads wouldn’t get sick as much, so they’d live longer and have more babies, and pass that trait onto them.  And eventually you’d get bald vultures.  Make sense?”

I know this is going to sound so corny, but he got it, and he thought that was really cool, and he thanked me genuinely for explaining it to him.  And then the same kid came up to me this morning with more good questions, like how speciation happens.  This is why I like my job.  Whenever I get stressed about something work-related (not that that’s been happening lately – this has been a great week), all I have to do is remind myself of moments like this.

rebecca at the beach?

My current job was always planned to be temporary, and for a while now I’ve been in the process of finding something new to do in the fall, once our summer camp season here ends.  Well, I’m pleased to report that I’ve been offered a position as an environmental educator for the 2010-2011 academic year at a 4-H center on Jekyll Island, Georgia.  I’m going to be moving down there in the second half of August, after a trip out west to visit my family.  Although I’m a little bit sad to be leaving the Buckeye State (again), I’m also really excited.  I’ve never lived on the coast before, so it’ll be a whole new ecosystem to explore!