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It’s bird-watching season: students have their binoculars ready

By Justin Cohen

The children of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies handle one of the birds PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BIRD CONSERVANCY OF THE ROCKIES

The STEM Action Grant is an award the Society gives to innovative nonprofits leading students in scientific research, with the goal of expanding STEM experiences and opening students to a world of science and tech opportunities.

One STEM Action Grantee is doing this work with the assistance of birds! The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, headquartered on the grounds of beautiful Barr Lake State Park, and their program Putting Birds into the Hands of Underserved Rural Youth, has a primary goal of providing STEM-related environmental education at a handful of bird banding stations located in Nebraska and Colorado. By encouraging participation in the programs, the goal is to “immerse children and adults in nature and foster stewardship values across generations.”

Their curriculum engages students with the wonders of nature through an activity known as bird banding. This is where participants tag wild birds to track their movements and monitor their well-being. The conservancy has two stations in Colorado during the spring and five facilities split between Colorado and Nebraska in the fall. Bird banding instructors teach participants stimulating skills such as how to use binoculars to view birds and how to note the adaptations and habitat needs of certain species. The instructors also teach students to identify bird species using “pocket” field guides during nature hikes.

During this past year, the Society’s STEM Action Grant had quite an impact on the program. Thanks to the grant many more bird banding stations could be kept open for another year, and serve an additional 800 students when compared to the year prior. Headed by seasoned ornithologists, The Bird Conservatory of the Rockies organized 17 trips altogether, attended by a total of 536 students in 2018. Although primary research for this grant-funded program took place in Nebraska, many students from outside the state had the opportunity to attend as well.

The students of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies are shown a new species
The students of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies are shown a new species PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BIRD CONSERVANCY OF THE ROCKIES

The elementary and middle school students who participated were from a predominantly rural area of the Nebraska panhandle consisting of only 8.4 people per square mile. Participants also included students from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a reservation that is home to the Oglala Sioux, a subtribe of the Lakota. Through this educational program, The Bird Conservancy is able to bring the joy of science to an audience with a per capita income that is 32 percent below the national average.

In all, the students were able to band more than 700 different birds comprising 45 different species. In a post-program survey, 100 percent of the teachers surveyed noted they would recommend this field trip to other teachers and that the activities aligned well with scientific standards. As commented by one teacher, “I have found that this is one of the rare opportunities connecting students with nature, going beyond the four walls of the typical classroom, and showing student scientists at work.”

According to Kelli Hirsch, Development Manager at Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, the grant money was used to hire professional bird banders to instruct the children and run the facilities, assuring that the quality of the scientific monitoring and education is top-notch.  

One student participant said, “Birds are all around us and learning about them is fun, entertaining and educational. Learning why we band birds and just watching what happens is a great experience for students. Not to mention we learn about new career opportunities available to us.”

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