Grant will help more kids in western Nebraska learn about birds

2/9/2018 | 0

A bird bander shows a group of children a Spotted Towhee before releasing it. Photo courtesy Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

A bird bander shows a group of children a Spotted Towhee before releasing it. Photo courtesy Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, a bird science and education group with offices in Colorado and western Nebraska, recently received a $5,000 grant from the Society for Science and the Public, a nearly century-old nonprofit that works to expand scientific literacy.

Bird educator Amber Schiltz holds a banded Lazuli Bunting. Photo courtesy Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

Bird educator Amber Schiltz holds a banded Lazuli Bunting. Photo courtesy Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

Every year, from late August through mid-October, the Bird Conservancy hosts school groups at its two banding stations in the rural Nebraska Panhandle, to give students from first grade through high school an up-close look at birds that banders capture and study. The grant will allow the conservancy to offer the program to more students, and it will extend the programs to students from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for the first time, home to the Oglala Sioux.

“Now is the time to nurture and support community-based organizations that are finding innovative ways to get young people interested and involved in STEM disciplines,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and publisher of Science News. (STEM is short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.) In total, the society announced $35,000 in grants for eight innovative organizations supporting community-based STEM projects.

Amber Schiltz, the Nebraska wildlife education coordinator for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, says about 800 students visit the two banding stations each year. “It’s an amazing opportunity for students to see birds up close and to see scientist working with birds up close,” she says. “We thought the grant was a great fit, and we were really grateful and humbled that we were awarded it.”

The grant will allow her to offer free bus trips for students from the reservation to the banding station at Chadron State Park. She said it’s about a two-hour drive.

A young visitor to Chadron State Park examines a bird field guide. Photo courtesy Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

A young visitor to Chadron State Park examines a bird field guide. Photo courtesy Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

During the fall migration, the two banding sites process a lot of warblers, woodpeckers, and Spotted Towhees. “A really cool thing, especially at the Wildcat Hills station, near Scottsbluff and Gering, is that we see a lot of Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins,” species not normally thought of as being in Nebraska. “The students get to see Red Crossbills up close and get to see the unique adaptation of that crossed-over bill. They think it’s really funny. Some say, ‘I think he needs to go to the dentist.’

“They’ve never seen a bird that looks like that, but we explain that this is a really cool adaption to help them eat their pine cones.”

Schiltz and her fellow banders typically work with first through sixth graders on the field trips, but sometimes they’ll have high-school kids visiting, usually from a science class. “That’s really fun because we can do a different level of engagement and education with them,” she says. “Last year when we had a high-school science class come out, we had bird mounts and gave the students the same data sheet the bander was using. And they took measurements of the specimen birds. We also presented a lot of data from the last 10 years of banding and asked them to look for patterns. So we could walk them through analyzing that data as best they could, and that’s really fun to see them make connections like that.” — Matt Mendenhall, Editor

Learn more about the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies banding program

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