Young Birders: A Growing Flock and a Force for the Future

April 20, 2009
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By the Numbers

  • No. of undergraduates doing research or internships here in 2010:49
  • No. of Kids Discover the Trail participants in 2010:400
  • No. of teachers at BirdSleuth professional development workshops:600
  • No. of BirdSleuth modules in use: more than 750
  • No. of requests for Celebrate Urban Birds kits: more than 70,000
  • Proportion of Great Backyard Bird Count participants who say their appreciation of birds increased after the count:44%

Birds are some of nature’s most captivating creatures—and you can encounter them almost anywhere you look. At the Cornell Lab, we’re constantly seeking new ways to engage children and youth in watching and studying birds. The result is almost magical. We’ve seen time after time how connecting with birds leads to passion and involvement in science and nature. By engaging youth in our curricula, citizen-science projects, and events, we’ve been inspired to see the next generation of birders, scientists and conservation leaders in the making.

Young Scientists

From day one, middle-school students at Tualatin Valley Academy in Oregon embraced the Cornell Lab’s BirdSleuth curriculum. Teacher Phil Kahler says, “Students are not only engaged in watching birds and learning about them, but they are learning about the nature of science as they conduct their own investigations.”

Students, parents, and friends built a bird blind out of recycled lumber—a place where students now observe hundreds of birds at feeders and collect data to answer their own questions. They publish their findings in Cornell Lab publications such as the BirdSleuth Reports Webzine and Classroom BirdScope.

Students also chose a bird species to study from among the Cornell Lab’s research and citizen-science projects. They learned about each species and created beautiful artwork, which they shipped to the Cornell Lab for an exhibit in our visitors’ center. One student said, “The experience was very cool. Now I care about birds and actually notice them!” Check out their artwork.

Teen Standouts

We also nurture young birders like Andy Johnson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, through our annual Young Birders Event. In 2009, Andy and nine other high-school standouts joined us at the Lab for three days of birding, networking, and seminars.

One of those seminars captured Andy’s imagination, as graduate student Nathan Senner shared stories of research on Hudsonian Godwit migration. Ten months later, Andy joined Nathan’s team in Churchill, Manitoba, as a field assistant, searching for godwit nests, banding godwits, and attaching transmitters to the birds to help track them. “It was unbelievable to imagine a 300-gram bird tripling its weight by feeding on a thin film of invertebrates before flying sometimes 7,000 miles nonstop, en route to Tierra del Fuego,” says Andy, who went on to graduate from Cornell University and work closely with us here at the Cornell Lab.

Free, Fun, and Life-Changing

Beyond classrooms and events at the Lab, thousands of youth connect with birds during the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). During the four-day count, children participate with their families, their classrooms, or local nature centers to watch birds for at least 15 minutes and report their tallies online. Even this brief exposure to birds, nature, and science can have a big impact.

Mike Schwindt teaches third-graders on a native reserve in northwestern Ontario. His students made bird feeders from old pop bottles so they could count birds for the GBBC. Mike says he noticed an immediate change in Nathaniel—a youngster who usually focuses on a task for only a minute or two at a time. Nathaniel paid a lot more attention than usual while making and hanging his feeder. When a chickadee landed on his feeder, Nathaniel was transfixed. “My student, who had so much trouble focusing, spent a solid 10 minutes crouching perfectly still, hand outstretched, to see if his new friend would land in his hand to eat some seeds,” says Mike.

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