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Celebrate Urban Birds hosts Latino youths for informal summit

Text and photos by Pat Leonard
students band birds at Cornell Lab
Alexis and Cornell undergraduate Luke DeFisher band a Song Sparrow.

“It feels so fragile!” said Alexis, cupping a tiny Song Sparrow in her hands for the first time. On a hot, sunny August day, Alexis and two dozen other teens were visiting the Cornell Lab as part of an informal summit of Latino youth. Hosted by the Lab’s Celebrate Urban Birds project, the trip capped off months of activities focused on bird habitat projects on Long Island and in Syracuse, New York. The visit was an eye-opener in many ways: the participants got to see a university campus up close, took walks along wooded trails, learned about careers in science, and felt the heartbeat of a living bird.

The Syracuse teens belong to a group called LACE: Latino Achievement, Commitment, and Excellence.The group was created to provide education and job training for Latino youth in the area, many of whom are recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. It was formed by Nosotros Radio Inc., “Your Latino Voice,” and is directed by Fanny Villarreal.

This summer, members of LACE wrote a proposal to the Cornell Lab through our Celebrate Urban Birds mini-grant program. They won funds, training, and support for their neighborhood project: creating a “bird garden” in an abandoned train yard. The young people built benches, painted a mural, planted a garden, and put up bird feeders.

“Thicklets” In the Thick of It

The Long Island students call themselves the Thicklets because of their habitat restoration work at the Fish Thicket Land Preserve in Medford, New York. The project also promotes community awareness about the environment. The young people have installed screech-owl nest boxes, planted a garden, and conducted cleanup in the preserve. They’ve learned how important it is to connect with and preserve nature and how to work as a team.

Students explore the trails in Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary.

Members of both groups blended as they moved through activities during their field trip to the Lab and concluded the day with presentations about their community projects.

“That’s when the kids got to really shine,” said Celebrate Urban Birds leader Karen Purcell. “They were nervous and excited. But you could see some of them get five inches taller as they spoke about what they’d accomplished over the summer.” Both LACE and the Thicklets also took the show on the road, explaining their habitat projects at tables in the 4-H building during the New York State Fair the following day. 

Building For the Future

The workshop concludes year one of a three-year grant for youth development in New York from Cornell Cooperative Extension. Years two and three will build upon this year’s successes, bringing in more Latino groups to learn about birds, citizen science, habitat, and about connecting people to nature.

“It’s just a little seed,” says Karen Purcell. “We hope that seed will bloom into something strong…that’s all we can hope for.”

If you know a Latino group that could benefit from this project, write to Celebrate Urban Birds supports other projects across North America, including one that brought urban students to the Lab from as far away as California for a weekend of art and science. CUBs also offers annual mini-grants, a remote internship program for youth created with help from Kaytee Avian Foundation, and ideas for community projects that combine citizen science and art.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library