by Denny Olson

Trunk Workshop – Photo Credit: Sheena Pate

Probably the most photographed education activity – maybe the most photographed thing in the entire history of Flathead Audubon – is a little kid in our old standby felt bird costume. It’s pretty cute, especially if it’s your own child, and the “littles” walk away with a good concept of what makes a bird a bird. Beaks, feet, wings, tail, body down, primaries, secondaries, crests – they know the basics.

But I’ve always felt that the name “Bird ID and Costume” for the trunk, was not really about “Bird ID”, but about bird morphology, or the “parts” of all birds. Because the costume was so brightly colored in primary reds, yellows, blues and greens, it was not meant to  “ID” a local bird. So it was time to give ID its proper due.

Almost everyone, kids included, knows what a Chickadee looks like. What they probably don’t know, adults included, is that we have four kinds of Chickadees in the Flathead – Black-capped (the one they do know), Mountain, Boreal and Chestnut-backed. To my way of thinking, this is the “perfect storm” of backyard birds to teach the subtleties of field marks, habitat, habits and vocalizations – all things we birder-types use to identify bird species. Enter: the shiny, new “Chickadee Who’s Who: Bird ID Basics” educational trunk, designed as the next step from the original colorful “bird parts” trunk. That original trunk has a target age of pre-school and primary grades. This one will follow up with somewhat older students and get into the nitty-gritty of bird Identification.

But, to do that, there were some special skills needed, none of which are mine (except for the “habits” part). Bruce Tannehill, our own Godfather of the World of Bird Song Geeks, put together a beautiful thumb drive of songs, calls, agitated calls, gurgles, etc. of all four Chickadees within a few hours of my request. (After teaching week-long Birding in Glacier courses with him the last few years, I just knew he would have what I needed. And more.)

As for the interchangeable Chickadee costumes, Kay Mitchell pointed me straight to Sandi Vashro, a very talented artist and designer, who has produced an amazing set of Chickadee costumes. Three hoods with beaks, four different tunic backs and fronts, and a single set of wings and tail later, we have a costume that shows the different field marks of all four chickadees. Despite a long planning process, this was all constructed in a very short timeline, and probably not painlessly … As you read this, I can say we premiered this trunk at the Educational Trunk Teacher’s Workshop on October 18th. Proudly.

From there, I had the easy part, having students read cards to their cohorts with 19 bits of Chickadee lore, about things like the “snake act” female Chickadees do by hissing and striking the sides of their nest cavity when they feel threatened. Or the fact that Mountain Chickadees yearly grow larger brains each winter when they live at higher elevations. Or, that Boreal Chickadees are the only ones who can survive minus 50 degree temperatures. Chestnut-backed Chickadees are darker in wetter, shadier climates.

All this is designed as a practicum on solving the puzzles of bird identification, using a bird that is very familiar. But, kids need a reason to care about what they are learning, so a lesson on the value of birds to we humans is included as well.

Take a kid fishing? Sure. But take them bird-watching too. They may give you some tips …