In my last post, I entertained a grand vision for how we might reorient segments of our curriculum around getting to know and assuming stewardship of the natural history and ecology of our campus. This week, I thought I’d share an idea I’ve had fermenting for a while that might be a manageable place to start.
Let’s return to that little pocket of woodland I told you about, the watershed that (evidently) is home to some sort of threatened or endangered plant species. Late last spring, while walking through a parking lot that defines one of its edges, I caught the song of a Wood Thrush floating out of the trees. I don’t see Wood Thrushes very often, as they tend to skulk in heavy forest cover, but their song is unmistakable and unforgettable, an ethereal ee-oh-lay-oh-leeee, the most musical of the haunting family of thrush songs (do yourself a favor and listen to these).
Drawing practice—Wood Thrush. (But, alas! I notice an error . . . the spots on its breast should be labeled black, not brown.)
I was surprised to hear a Wood Thrush singing in that location. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it as “a bird of the interior forest, seldom seen outside the deep woods,” and yet here, presumably, was at least one male trying to establish breeding territory in a decidedly isolated fragment. I wonder if it was successful. According to Cornell, “a Wood Thrush often returns to the same breeding territory in successive years,” so listening for this same bird in the same location next spring might give me something of an answer.
This is the sort of sustained attention to our campus’ natural community I’d like to see our students get involved in.
But if wandering around campus and listening for birds seems overly romantic and non-academic, we could design a more scientific and academically rigorous study by adapting protocols from the USGS North American Breeding Bird Survey program. Here, in a nutshell, is a description of how a Breeding Bird Survey works:
Each year during the height of the avian breeding season, June for most of the U.S. and Canada, participants skilled in avian identification collect bird population data along roadside survey routes. Each survey route is 24.5 miles long with stops at 0.5-mile intervals. At each stop, a 3-minute point count is conducted. During the count, every bird seen within a 0.25-mile radius or heard is recorded. Surveys start one-half hour before local sunrise and take about 5 hours to complete.
Obviously, we’d have to make some significant changes—we definitely don’t have 24.5 miles of road on campus!—but we can use the basic concept of setting up a repeatable framework for making bird counts at designated points. Instead of 50 stops on a linear, roadside route, we could designate, say, six or ten sampling points on a grid to cover the range of campus environments. In each of these locations, then, we would follow BBS protocols for data gathering. This framework could then be repeated yearly to track campus bird diversity over time, a multi-year data set being particularly useful for learning about ecological cause-and-effect as our campus changes.
I had the opportunity to conduct a mock BBS with students several years back, and I was impressed with how quickly they got the hang of it. Accompanied by an ornithologist, we drove half of an established survey route, stopping at half-mile intervals and gathering data as prescribed. I would have thought that teenagers would have little use for birding by ear, that they’d find the whole BBS routine monotonous, but I could not have been more wrong. With each stop, they became more proficient at recognizing bird song, and we came to rely on our expert accompaniment less and less. I reveled in their excitement at discovering a whole new world, their pride in their new proficiencies, their growing connection to the landscape. And this experience provided the spine for a whole body of in-depth learning and discussion, ranging from further specifics about bird biology and behavior to larger questions of ecology and ethics.
It’s a place to start.