I grew up in rural Kentucky, where the outdoors was an endless source of entertainment and intrigue. I played in the creek in the summer and wandered through the woods year-round. In the winter, from the warmth of the kitchen table, I watched cardinals, tufted titmice, and downy wood-peckers duke it out at the bird feeder. I learned to associate wild animals and wild places with a mix of comfort and adventure.
I grew up believing that the woods were a place where kids were safe to roam and follow their imaginations. However, I soon learned that my Urban Ecology class of high school seniors in Washington, D.C., had a very different perspective. Many of my students, who are primarily Black and Latinx from low-income backgrounds, were wary of the outdoors.
The first time I tried to take my students into Rock Creek Park to sample understory plant species, there was a small revolt. “No, Miss. We can’t go there. It’s not safe!”
They were worried about pollen allergies, poison ivy, and attacks from mosquitoes, snakes, and other animals. More deeply, they were afraid for their personal safety. Away from the protection of street lights and watchful neighbors, the woods became a maze where people were vulnerable to attack. The isolation and density of the forest shielded clandestine activities from the public eye.
When I had visited the woods in anticipation of the sampling lesson, I had gone with my ecologist lenses on. I saw tree species like tulip poplar that felt like familiar friends from back home. But when I returned with my students, I noticed that the tulip poplar trunks were blackened with gang signs. Finding hypodermic needles and used condoms just off the path lent further credence to my students’ concerns. During our sampling, we uncovered a huge flat-screen TV, wrapped in garbage bags and hidden under a pile of leaves. Suddenly my understanding of what it meant to be outdoors seemed, at best, naive.
Enlightened by my students’ insights about the city where they had grown up, and to which I had recently moved, I was left with a dilemma: How do I respect my students’ well-founded fears while also helping them engage with the natural world?
My goal as an environmental science and urban ecology teacher is to help students see and understand the connections between their actions and the effect those actions have on the natural world. Humans have the power to damage the natural world around us, but we also have a great obligation to protect it—both individually and collectively. As David Sobel asserts in his book Beyond Ecophobia, before we ask students to take action to protect the natural world, they need a reason to do so. “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.” Some of my students were already avid lovers of the outdoors, but I needed a way to entice my most resistant students to fall in love with nature.
Learning to Notice Birds
As a child and then later as an ornithology student in college, I experienced the compelling nature of birds firsthand. Birds are omnipresent, even in an urban environment. As soon as people have the lens to start noticing birds, it’s almost impossible not to see them and get curious about them. They are wild, but close at hand. Despite their small size and seeming fragility, they are hardy enough to stand up to rain, wind, and snow. People, especially young people, are eager to point them out, to ask questions about them, and to advocate for them. I use that curiosity to encourage my students to fall in love with nature.
Over the course of the spring semester, my Urban Ecology students become adept in the field of ornithology—a field that they didn’t even know existed—using tools that once seemed foreign and out of reach. We begin with a simple two-part quiz. First I show students images of 20 different brand name logos. They fall over each other, yelling out names and crowing with pride at their knowledge. The second slide has images of 20 common urban bird species. The room falls silent. After a few hesitant guesses like “blue bird” for blue jay, the protests begin. “Hey! That isn’t fair!” “How are we supposed to know these?”
“Ah! So, let’s ask a different question,” I prompt. “You guys felt really confident on the first quiz, but not about the birds. Why do you think that is?”
I chart my students’ answers on the board while pressing their thinking.
“We see the brands every day. We don’t see the birds,” Antoine offers.
“Is that so? How many people here have seen birds before?” Kids hesitantly raise their hands.
“OK,” Marta protests. “But nobody ever taught us the bird names.”
“That’s fair. But who taught you that the golden arches meant McDonald’s?”
There are a few beats of silence. “We pay money for shoes and food, so of course we’re going to know what they are.”
“Yeah, and companies advertise those names and images.”
“Ah. So companies teach you those names, and teach you to value those products. What would it take to value birds in the same way?” I chart these answers too.
“Could there be ads about birds?” Zuri wonders.
“I don’t think it matters,” Domingo says. “People will never value birds the same way that they do Nikes.”
With all their ideas and questions charted, we get down to the work of learning how to value birds. We begin by learning to use the tools of ornithologists.
Although birding can be done with no equipment at all, equipping students with professional-grade binoculars allows them to both see more birds and to see themselves as more legitimate birders. These factors are important enough that I used a considerable portion of my annual budget the first year we studied birds to buy a class set of high quality binoculars. I assign a pair to each student. I show them the importance of the protective neck strap and lens covers, then they practice focusing. Students look across our school’s courtyard into the windows of the chemistry room at the signs I’ve posted there. In order to read the progressively smaller and smaller fonts, students have to be able to focus their binoculars to make the letters look, in their words, “crystal clear, like it’s in HD.” So we can practice tracking motion, I call in the help of middle school students, who hold signs and run around our soccer field until my students can instinctually whip their binoculars to their desired field of view and focus on their target.
Armed with their binoculars, students learn to identify common urban bird species. The logo exercise showed us that names matter. Learning the birds’ names, features, and habits gives the birds the very individuality and value that Domingo was so skeptical of.
“Today is a special day in our classroom,” I announce. “Today, each of you is going to adopt a bird.”
A collective chorus erupts. “You bought us all birds!?”
All eyes are on me. They are excited and hopeful, and I realize the error of my messaging.
“OK, no. You’re going to adopt a species of bird. But this is your bird! You’re responsible for this bird in our class. You are the expert. You’re going to learn everything about this bird. When we see it outside, we’re going to turn to you for information.”
The birds from the 20 common urban bird species are all up for grabs, and kids agonize over their choices. With their bright colors and familiarity as team mascots, the northern cardinal and blue jay usually go first. “I want the most savage bird,” Lilia asserts. I steer her toward the otherwise nondescript brown-headed cowbird, knowing that she will be delighted and appalled to learn how, instead of raising its own offspring, this invasive species lays its eggs in other birds’ nests.
Once they’ve selected their species, students use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website to research their birds’ identifying characteristics and natural histories. They learn whether their species is solitary or travels in flocks. They learn about territoriality and competition. They learn what their bird eats and what its habitat and beak shape tell us about its needs. They learn about the bird’s range and migration patterns, classifying it as a year-round resident or neotropical migrant. They learn the bird’s songs and calls and create their own mnemonic devices to recognize and remember them. As they research, students become fiercely invested in and dedicated to their birds. Each student then shares their knowledge with the class, so students can create their own personalized bird guides.
During her presentation, Alicia plays the Carolina wren’s distinctive three-syllable song for the class.
“Oooh,” Julius says, smiling, “that bird is saying ‘twerk-ety, twerk-ety, twerk.'”
Aisha reports that her bird, the European starling, “sounds like a malfunctioning computer.”
“The crow sounds like Jeepers Creepers,” says Elias.
Unlike the mnemonics that ornithologists traditionally use, these phrases and concepts are personal to the kids and their experiences. It shows that they are internalizing their learning. Despite their initial reluctance, they are falling in love with birds.
When it’s her turn, Lilia and the brown-headed cowbird steal the show. She tells her peers about how young brown-headed cowbirds gobble up all of the food that the unsuspecting host parents bring back to the nest to feed their own offspring. Eventually many of the other fledglings will starve to death.
Her classmates are appropriately shocked and horrified by this concrete example of how non-native invaders affect the native species in an ecosystem. “So they make somebody else raise their kid? Oh no. Unh unh!” Aisha says, “That’s not right!” It gives our previous investigations into invasive species a new and specific context.
Out into the Community
Once students have their personalized field guides, we identify the habits of strong birders, and we practice them on birding walks around the neighborhood several times a week:
- Move as quietly as possible.
- Always keep your binoculars ready.
- Use hand signals to show the group when you’ve spotted something.
- Don’t put your binoculars up until you’re out of the street, even if you have a really good look.
On our early walks, students watch with delight and intensity from the sidewalk as house sparrows flit around the bushes near our school. A few weeks in, there’s a magical moment when they’re no longer satisfied by seeing only ubiquitous, invasive European starlings and house sparrows on our bird walks. Like other birders, they want to add new species to their life lists. They are now eager to go back into the woods. We’re still on alert, aware of both the dangers and the promise of the natural space, but the graffiti, beer cans, and condoms fade into the background as they strain to see a white-breasted nuthatch hopping around the trunk of a tree.
Strong partnerships with experts from local nonprofits allow my fledgling birders to experience a wider range of birds. Adults who bird are eager to share their passion with younger folks. After a few emails and phone calls, seasoned birders from our local chapters of the Audubon Society and Latino Outdoors come in to help my students spot transient and difficult-to-find migratory species like palm warblers and Cape May warblers in the park behind our school. Working with ornithologists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, my students use super fine nets to capture live birds in the forested section of the park, and then tag them with identifying leg bands. Last year, Jamilla stood wide-eyed as she watched the ornithologist gently extract a gray catbird from the net. When the ornithologist extended the bird to her to touch its feathers, she whispered to herself, “That’s my bird!” While students get to see birds alive and close up, they are also helping amass population data about migratory and resident birds in the park.
Our work with birds culminates with students taking concrete action to protect the migratory birds that live in and pass through our city. Migratory birds face many threats, including habitat destruction and attacks from outdoor house cats. One of the biggest dangers for migratory birds, though, especially in urban environments, is deadly collisions with glass windows. To combat this threat, my students partner with our local wildlife rehabilitation center, City Wildlife. Through their Lights Out D.C. program, a dedicated group of citizen scientists walks a five-mile loop of downtown early every morning during birds’ spring and fall migration seasons. They’re looking for the bodies of birds that have hit the illuminated glass of buildings during their overnight migration flights.
One of our class requirements is that students go on one of Lights Out D.C.’s 5:30 a.m. data collection runs with an expert and a small group of their peers. The complaints when I announce the assignment are strong and sincere. “You want me to be downtown when?” “Is the Metro even open then?” “Do you know what time I’m going to have to get up?”
In the end, not all students are able to drag themselves out of bed, but I’m always pleasantly surprised that, when given the opportunity to protect birds, most students are invested enough to go. Even three students who haven’t attended school in weeks somehow make it out to walk around in the dark, drizzly predawn hours to look for birds. Students show up with bleary eyes, hoodies over heads, McDonald’s wrappers in their hands, and a conflicting mix of exhaustion, excitement, and dread about the possibility of finding a bird. Lilia voices what we are all thinking: “I hope we find something! I mean, I hope we don’t find anything, but it would be cool to find something.”
In one particularly touching moment, Luis and Armando find a yellow warbler with a broken neck—dead, but still tender and warm to the touch. As they stroke its feathers, they grapple not with the abstract idea of humans’ impact on migratory birds, but with the permanence of death. “We can’t revive it?” they plead. After I shake my head, we spend a few silent moments appreciating the beauty of the tiny bird and its journey from South America before placing it in its bag to be cataloged.
Back in class, my students analyze the bird mortality data—graphing the number of collisions per species at each building over time and comparing it to the total number of birds killed in collisions each year. They present their data and findings to stakeholders from City Wildlife, to inform their outreach to building owners and architects. The goal is to protect vulnerable species by modifying lighting and construction material choices. I hope that, as we deepen our partnership, my students will soon be able to report their findings and suggestions directly to the building owners and architects themselves.
“Now I Can’t Go Anywhere Without Seeing Birds!”
Every year when I begin teaching about birds, I forget about the wall of skepticism and resistance that descends upon our classroom. “No disrespect, Miss,” Alma wonders a little testily, “but why are we learning this?” Then later, “Ugh. Are we still learning about birds?” By the end of the semester, though, the most vocal complainers often change the most. Despite themselves, students get drawn into the world of birds and birding. The birds win them over. Within a few weeks, Alma’s questioning has changed: “Why did you have to teach me about birds?” she whines. “Now, I can’t go anywhere without seeing birds! And then I have to try to identify them!” Marta echoes her sentiment. “You’ve done something to me, Ms. Royse.”
As a teacher, it can be difficult to assess the difference that my work makes in my students’ lives. Are they out leading protests, talking to elected officials, or writing letters to advocate for the environment? Maybe, but I also know that environmental stewardship takes many forms. I find great hope even in subtle changes to my students’ personal actions. Because I teach seniors, I rely on reports from alumni to gauge the impact of our time together. Luis recently emailed one of those updates that teachers live for: “I want to thank you for allowing me to love science and for giving me the inspiration to pursue a career relating to science.” After finishing two years at community college, he is now majoring in biology, and he’s not alone. Julio reports that he is studying urban planning. Laura is studying environmental science.
As she heads off to her first year of college, Marta is excited to be taking urban ecology again—this time at the college level. She’s also sharing her birding knowledge within her own community. “When I go walking with my boyfriend,” she admits, “I point out all the birds, and he’s getting pretty good at naming them, too.”
When former students come back to visit, they are eager to talk about recent sightings of cardinals, bald eagles, and mysterious species. We get out guide books and debate plumage coloration and flight patterns.
All of this gives me hope for my students and their role in saving our planet. When students develop even a small connection to the natural world, they’ve gained a stake in its preservation. That’s why both Orlando and I were grinning when he shared his end of year course evaluation, “I used to hate the woods and being outside, and now I hate it a little bit less.”
- City Wildlife. “Lights Out DC.” citywildlife.org/programs/lights-out-dc.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Celebrate Urban Birds: Focal Species.” celebrateurbanbirds.org/learn/birds/quick-guide-to-focal-species.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “All About Birds.” allaboutbirds.org.
- Latino Outdoors. latinooutdoors.org.
- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds.
- Sobel, David. 1996. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Orion Society.
Ellen Royse (Contact Me) teaches environmental science and urban ecology at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. This article grew out of Teaching for Change’s project, Stories from Our Classrooms.
Illustrator Katherine Streeter’s work can be found at katherinestreeter.com.