Big Possibilities for Local Bird Education

by Denny Olson

Partly because our local schools are cash-strapped for bus money, opportunities for public school outdoor education seem to be shrinking. With our local economy increasingly tied to outdoor experiences – and with what we know about how important natural outdoor experiences are in the intellectual and emotional development of children — this is an alarming development. Flathead Audubon, the Flathead Land Trust, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks all seemed to come to this realization at the same time, so we have decided to partner and lay the groundwork for a potential (and partial) solution to this problem. Our ultimate goal is to find non-public funding to solve a situation that afflicts public schools facing drying-up budgets.

But first, we have to come up with a plan, in the form of a list of goals, specific measurable objectives and ultimate outcomes for our local students. Here’s a summary of what we have so far.

We want to offer high-quality learning experiences (in-school presentations, learning trunks and especially, field trips) about local and accessible birds to Flathead Valley students. Why birds? Birds are found everywhere on the planet, are incredibly diverse, are critical to our survival through their roles in (a) pest control, (b) seed and pollen dispersal, (c) recycling death back into life, and they are high quality indicators of overall environmental health. Birds have inspired humans throughout history with their beauty, complex music and flight, and bird watching is a large and rapidly-growing portion of our outdoor recreation-based economy.

In addition, the Flathead’s natural outdoors is integral to our quality of water, air, food, human life and enjoyment. Sound research has consistently shown that children and adults who spend significant time in nature are healthier, happier, and smarter. Familiarity with our home “place” is important to our health and happiness though a sense of belonging, and stimulates intelligence regarding making good decisions about our local area.We want to incorporate bird education into standard core science curriculum to give teachers an interesting, hands-on, unique way to teach concepts about biodiversity and ecosystems that incorporates outdoor field trips.

We want to teach students, through their own relationships with birds, about species diversity, adaptations, ecosystems, and how changes in habitats in ecosystems can lead to population changes, and how biodiversity is an indicator of ecosystem health. This can also expose them to a potentially fascinating life-long recreational and learning activity – birding – one of the fastest-growing outdoor pursuits in the world.

Here’s a sample of some of our learning objectives:

  • Students will be able to name and show graphically five reasons why birds are important to them personally.
  • Students will be able to relate at least fifteen species of Flathead Valley birds to specific local environments.
  • Students will be able to explain why the availability of quality bird habitat affects their quality of life directly and indirectly.
  • Students will be able to explain why healthy habitat and diverse bird populations will affect their own future economic well-being.
  • Students will be able to explain three unique adaptations of birds in general (i.e., hollow bones, feathers, unique ears) and two other strategies for survival (i.e., flight and migration).
  • With four educational trunks, three of which we will design and build (Sandhill Cranes, Ospreys, Chickadee Who’s Who, Migratory Waterfowl), students will be able to (a) explain at least three anatomical adaptations for each species or group that enable them to thrive and (b) the habitat needs they have throughout the year (both locally and elsewhere, if migratory).
  • Students will be able to explain bird diversity by demonstrating the nuances of bird field identification, and use binary species identification “keys” to show the characteristics (e.g. behavior, field marks), language and habitats of four kinds of Chickadees and / or waterfowl/water birds – (dabbling ducks, diving ducks, non-duck waterfowl, and Tundra / Trumpeter swans).
  • In the field, students will be able to understand bird adaptations being used to help birds survive in their habitats and experience bird diversity by identifying key birds at the field trip site.
  • Students will be able to explain why migratory stop-over places and migration corridors are so important to bird survival in their ecosystem and how small changes to habitat in one part of their migration journey can affect their survival.
  • Students will gain a better understanding of their own “back yard”, thereby showing them that many very accessible and nearby places have special value to wildlife and the quality of their own lives. 
  • Students will be able to explain the economic and environmental value of protected open space, wetlands and riparian areas, and express some understanding that the future of open protected areas is directly tied to their own civic and everyday behavior.

The field trip portions of these sequences are the most important part of the Unit. The overall goal of the Partners is to re-acquaint students with their natural surroundings. It bears repeating that students who play and learn outdoors in natural surroundings develop into healthier, happier and smarter adults.

Many people live in this grand place we call the Flathead because of outdoor recreational opportunities. Our role is to also remind our future citizens that these wonderful surroundings also offer opportunities to learn as well as recreate (or do both at once). Our outdoors is one of the highest quality “classrooms” on this Planet. We should take advantage. In fact, we are starting to just that, and we’ll keep you posted.