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Home Study Course Inspires Training of Guides in the Yucatan

By Nancy Trautmann
Pygmy Kingfisher
Pygmy Kingfisher. Photo by Alex Dzib.

Ah, vacation in the Yucatan! Rising at dawn in quest of American Pygmy Kingfishers, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Squirrel Cuckoos, Mexican Sheartails, and more. As a bird enthusiast visiting the Yucatan for the first time this spring, these and other magnificent species would have escaped my attention without the help of Alex Dzib, a skilled naturalist guide.

In turn, I might never have met Dzib had Yucatan bird conservationist Barbara MacKinnon not recommended him to me. And perhaps fittingly, it was a Cornell Lab of Ornithology correspondence course—offered through our Education program, which I now direct—that many years ago spurred MacKinnon to become a force for bird conservation in the Yucatan, where she has launched efforts to train hundreds of local guides, including Dzib. Since 1972, the Home Study Course has provided thousands of adult learners from more than 60 countries with the opportunity for independent study in ornithology. In 1975, MacKinnon took the course while living on a small island near Cancún, and soon she was applying what she learned to the birds just outside her door. MacKinnon’s dismay over rapid urbanization of favorite birding spots turned her into a force for conservation. Considering the limited economic opportunities in many rural communities, and the potential for the Yucatan Peninsula’s amazing birds to bring ecotourism dollars and new livelihoods to the region, MacKinnon began conducting workshops to train local bird guides.

In the ensuing decade, she trained more than 250 guides, who have led tens of thousands of tourists and locals in viewing the region’s famous flocks of flamingos, endemics, and other birds both common and exotic. The guides also have become conservation advocates who report damage to mangroves and other habitats, keep a close eye on native bird populations, and lead birding workshops for children.

Nature guide and Home Study Course alumnus Alex Dzib helped Nancy Trautmann find American Pygmy Kingfishers (top) and Mexican Sheartails (above) in the Yucatan. Photo by Alex Dzib.

MacKinnon notes, “It is amazing to see how birds have changed people’s lives and their perceptions about the need to protect habitat. The teaching of English bird names has led to English classes as guides seek to better communicate with visitors. And school children are asking for English classes as well—but want classes that include learning about birds, as they associate the two as part of the same process!”

Dzib, who led me to so many fantastic Yucatan birds, attended one of these workshops. It opened his eyes to birding and led to a year as an exchange student in wintry upstate New York. Now working as a naturalist guide, he loves to pass along this passion to children. In his hometown, Dzib created a program to encourage children to watch birds rather than shoot them with slingshots. Coming full circle, Dzib won a scholarship to take the Home Study Course in 2005, in recognition of his ability to enact change through birding.

Seeing MacKinnon’s and Dzib’s education efforts in the Yucatan has led me to reflect on ways in which the Cornell Lab can inspire and assist similar efforts elsewhere. Bringing children into closer connection with the natural world is a key goal of the Lab’s BirdSleuth citizen-science curriculum for middle school students. Originally designed for use in the United States, BirdSleuth is attracting interest among Latin American educators, and we have begun partnering with interested groups in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and the Caribbean. Together with the Lab’s conservation science program, we aim to help host-country organizations advance the conservation of birds and vital habitats throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Inspiring people of all ages to become skilled naturalists and dedicated environmentalists like MacKinnon and Dzib surely seems key to conserving biodiversity both at home and abroad.

Nancy Trautmann is Director of the Cornell Lab’s Education Program.

Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of BirdScope.

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