Counting birds leads students to science Reply

by Erinna Ford

Lakemba Primary School students use four key features – size, colour, behaviour and location – to help identify different bird species.  Photograph: Erinna Ford.

Lakemba Primary School students use four key features – size, colour, behaviour and location – to help identify different bird species.
Photograph: Erinna Ford.

Birds in Schools, a new educational program run by Birdlife Australia, is teaching literacy and numeracy to primary school students through bird observation. The program encourages students in grades five and six to become citizen scientists, with the final data submitted to a nationwide Birdlife database.

The Birds in Schools program is currently being taught in 18 primary schools within the Sydney area and is structured across a full school year. It includes regular guidance from the Birdlife staff and volunteers, with the opportunity to share their findings with other participating schools.

Starting off with an excursion to the Birdlife Discovery Centre in Sydney Olympic Park, students are taught practical methods of observing birds and how to identify different species.

Given a list of common species and a bird field book, students are encouraged to utilise their problem solving skills in order to identify the correct bird. By comparing the size, colour, behaviour, and location of the bird to familiar species, they are able to narrow down their search.

Elizabeth Noble, the Birds in Schools Project Manager, says it’s often a case of reminding the students of what they already know. “So an eagle is probably going to be flying high in the sky, and ducks are probably going to be near water.”

This can still be difficult, according to one student, who says that some birds look too similar to tell apart, such as crows and ravens.

Compared to traditional rote learning, this style of active participation encourages students to search for the answer, says Lisa Rothwell, Assistant Principal at Lakemba Primary School. The chance for students to get outside of the classroom and apply their knowledge in a hands-on manner was one reason the school applied for the program, she says.

During a 20-minute observation, students record the species and abundance of birds within an area of their schools grounds. Surveys are repeated regularly throughout the year. The results are brought back to the classroom and integrated into the maths and science curriculum through data analysis and graphing.

The final data is entered into an Australian wide database that is run by Birds in Backyards, another Birdlife program. The database collects survey data from interested birdwatchers around Australia, and is used to assist with research projects and the development of bird habitat guidelines for council planners and other organisations.

Linking the two programs together is a really important aspect, says Elizabeth Noble. “We can say to the students, ‘What you do is really important. It’s not just going to be on a spreadsheet at school. You can really effect change.’”

However, the most important aim of the database is to encourage the connection between people and nature, says Dr Holly Parsons, Program Manager of the Birds in Backyards program. “It’s about getting people engaged with the environment, starting with the very simple joy of birds, and hopefully that leads to a greater respect for environmental issues as a whole.”

By including science topics such as biology and ecosystems, the Birds in School program not only teaches students about the negative impact humans can have on the natural environment, but also the positive ways to support native birdlife in urban areas.

Lisa Rothwell explains that a large number of Lakemba students come from cultures where the natural environment is not valued. “We want them to learn that wildlife is something to be treasured,” she says.

After the program has been completed, the schools are encouraged to develop an action plan to support the biodiversity and habitation of native bird species within the school grounds. The action plan will link into any environmental management plan the school may already have in place, says Elizabeth Noble. If such a plan doesn’t exist, it can help in the implementation of one.

Up to seven schools will be financially supported by Birds in Schools to undertake activities such as planting, installing nest boxes and whatever else they develop in their action plans.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the funding for every school,” says Ms Noble.

The Birds in Schools program was awarded a two year grant by the NSW Environmental Trust in 2012. Unlikely to be awarded the same grant a second time, the program will have to look at funding options in order to continue the program past mid-2015.

“We’re now looking for sponsorship or private donors,” says Ms Noble, “We would like to expand the program and take it into other states as well if we could, or at least beyond Sydney.”

The program has received positive feedback so far, with both students and teachers enthusiastic and engaged in the activities.

“By the time the students leave the Discovery Centre excursion, many of them are fascinated,” says Ms Noble, “One child said to me, ‘I never knew birds could actually be fun’.”

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