In April, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center spent two weeks in Texas for the second season of “Ecology of Urban Birds,” a program that brings middle school students into the field with Smithsonian scientists in Texas, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. This update was written by SMBC scientists Stacy Hill, Dorian Russell and Brian Evans.
The first leg of our journey brought us to the Gulf Coast of Texas, where we partnered with The Nature Conservancy at the Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve. The preserve is a coastal prairie ecosystem home to a stunning diversity of grasses, flowering plants and wildlife.
It’s also an important stopover site for thousands of migrating birds each spring. SMBC has operated a bird banding station at the preserve for eight years, and a skilled team of our fellow field researchers will spend two months banding birds during spring migration.
The students also learned technical skills, including how to use binoculars, compasses and range finders. With the help of our colleagues, we conducted bird banding demonstrations for each school group. The demonstrations provided an awe-inspiring glimpse into the natural histories of gray catbirds, common yellowthroats, prothonotary warblers and Lincoln’s sparrows.
At the end of each field trip, students applied the observational and technical skills they learned to create a field report for park managers that incorporated a habitat survey and a map that they created.
Over the course of two weeks, 130 students from three school districts participated in the Ecology of Urban Birds program. They made us feel welcome with their energy and enthusiasm, cheering each other on as they acted out stages of a Northern cardinal population model through a carnival-style ball toss activity.
We were incredibly impressed by one group’s mentorship program which paired ninth graders with fourth and fifth graders. The older students volunteered as team leaders throughout the day, thoughtfully guiding younger students through each lesson. Our last group of sharp-learners quickly mastered their compass skills, which they used to provide detailed habitat maps to park managers.
The data we collect during the program will help us learn how students’ experiences in nature shape their learning outcomes. We are now eagerly anticipating the next phase of our journey, which takes us back to Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, where we’ll run the same program for two weeks.
This Ecology of Urban Birds program is offered to underserved school districts free-of-charge in parts of Texas, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts, thanks to the generous support of the Smithsonian Youth Access Grant program, Conoco Phillips and Edgar Cullman Jr. The program targets grade-level appropriate learning outcomes in math and science through experiences with nature.