Most of the students in Laurie Solchenberger’s fourth-grade class at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison do not come from families that bird. Most have not used binoculars before they set foot in her class.
But last week, the nine- and ten-year-olds celebrated a year spent learning about backyard birds by raising money for projects to conserve birds. The Lincoln Birders, 4th Grade! are one of dozens of Wisconsin teams participating in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon.
A birdathon is like a walk-a-thon for birds. Participants collect pledges and donations for finding as many species as possible between April 15 and June 15. The goal is to raise money for the Wisconsin Bird Protection Fund and nine priority bird projects.
Solchenberger’s student-birders had been preparing for their May 25 birdathon all year. The instructor uses neighborhood birds as a platform for teaching science, social studies, math, and literacy, and for connecting students to the natural world. They had already taught the 300 other students at their school (and their teachers) about backyard birds, how to use binoculars, and how to collect data during a May 6 school-wide event.
As participants in Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch, the students identify and count birds they see at feeders outside their classroom from November through April. Their counts provide scientists data that help them track broad-scale movements of winter populations and long-term trends in distribution and abundance. The class also reports its sightings on eBird, a popular web-based reporting platform.
Students use Peterson and Sibley guidebooks, bird posters, and the Cornell University All About Birds website to identify their most common feeder birds. From there, students begin to use body shape and field marks to identify birds on their own.
“Last year, our exciting new bird was the Great Crested Flycatcher!” Solchenberger says. “This year, it was a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a White-crowned Sparrow, both of which the students independently recognized as being a new bird and needed to look up to identify.”
“Identifying birds and learning more about them is an easy and engaging way to get all students involved in learning complex topics,” she says. “Academically, students understand noticing our backyard friends and recording science data is valuable. Socially and emotionally, children use time at the window watching birds to calm down when stressed out, to take a break from hard work, and to talk about what they are seeing, which actively expands their vocabulary.”
Students’ year-long study of birds also sparks a lasting enthusiasm for, and connection to, the natural world. “Students who move away from my classroom during the year, or who move on to middle school, often continue to send me emails about the birds they see,” she says. “In fact, students who move frequently seem to find reassurance in seeing familiar friends (backyard birds) whereever they go.”
“The Birdathon is a wonderful way to end our school year,” Solchenberger says. “My hope is that it empowers my students and connects them even further to nature. And on a larger scale, I hope the 300-plus students who participate in our schoolwide event gain an appreciation for how challenging life is for birds (or other wild animals), the impact humans have on our environment/habitats, and how interconnected all lives are.”
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