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Out of the Classroom: Students Join Scientists to Explore Bird Habitat

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.

The coastal prairie of Texas is awash with a variety of spring wildflowers, including this plains coreopsis.

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.

Field researchers, Emma Cox and Danielle Aube, compare notes while banding a northern waterthrush and common yellow-throat (left to right). Bird banding is a technique scientists use to track and identify birds by putting a unique combination of aluminum or colored bands on their legs.

Meanwhile, we spent two weeks helping students from grades four through nine explore bird habitat through the eyes of a scientist. During each three-hour field trip, students constructed population models and evaluated habitats from the perspective of a variety of wildlife species.

Students explored prairie ecology for more than just birds! They looked at habitat features for a variety of organisms ranging from bobcats to armadillos. Seen here is a bobcat track left in the mud where students surveyed habitat.

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.

Field crew leader, Timothy Guida, extracts a bird from a mist net.  Mist nets are made of very fine threads that blend into the surroundings. Birds caught in these nets are carefully removed by trained scientists and later released after they have been banded. 

Emma Cox prepares to release a black-and-white warbler after banding.

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.

During their habitat survey, students built a food chain model and explored how plants and insects impact bird survival.

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 Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve in Collegeport, Texas, is home to more than just birds. Students were excited to view several resident alligators during the program.

Our team learned a lot from our experiences in Texas. We were moved by the beauty of the prairie and the warmth of Texas hospitality, including that of our gracious hosts — Preserve Manager Steven Goetz, who taught us about the prairie ecosystem, The Nature Conservancy, and our fellow SMBC field researchers.

Sunset stretches across the big Texas sky over the coastal prairie and mud flats.

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 slow-motion release video of a tiny female ruby-throated hummingbird gives us the unique opportunity to view wing movement that is normally too quick to perceive.

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.