Article

The Bird School Project

How two college buddies from UC-Santa Cruz turned their passion for natural history into an outlet for middle school students to plug into the great outdoors.

Story and photos by Odile Bouchard

March 1, 2016—Winter is finally back after a mid-February dry spell in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I peer up into the heavy grey clouds as they roll in over the green wall of redwoods on the ridgeline. The wind picks up.

“Oh, come on, don’t rain, not today,” I beg the dwindling patch of blue in the sky. I don’t like the rain, and neither do birds.

The sharp ring of a school bell snaps me out of my stare-off with the sky and back into reality. I am late. I rush under the eaves, down the outdoor hallway and into Mrs. Curcio’s sixth-grade classroom at San Lorenzo Valley Middle School.

Rows of students sit behind desks, facing the front of the class where Mrs. Curcio stands, filling them in on the daily plan. It takes two words, “bird school,” for my ears perk up and into action with the rest of the students’.

The classroom suddenly comes alive as Darrow Feldstein and Haley Osborn swoop into the scene, cawing and flapping their arms like birds.

“Goooooooooodmorning,” Feldstein says in a twangy drawl. “Today we are going to merge all the knowledge and skills we’ve learned to find as many birds species as we can.” He eggs them on: “The last class found six. If we find more, we can brag to them.”

Organized rows of students quickly evolve into one organic flock of “bird ninjas,” as Feldstein calls them. Equipped with binoculars, journals and field guides, we migrate outside on a mission to brave the winds in search of birds.

The middle school sits in a clearing surrounded by tall redwoods on every side. In the courtyard stand a couple of leafless, grey oak trees, some patches of browning grass and wooden benches. It doesn’t seem like an ideal playground for birds on such a cold, blustery day.

Mrs Crucio's class out looking for birds.

“Caw caw,” Feldstein summons the group in bird tongue. The students shush each other and huddle around. “Look up in that oak tree, guys, I think I see something.” We raise our binoculars to our eyes and turn our heads in unison to the tree. The bird show has begun.

This is the students' last day of Bird School. Feldstein and Osborn came to SLVMS five weeks ago with a thorough lesson plan, a couple of stuffed bird models, binoculars and field guides. Their intentions were simple: give students a sneak peek into the secret life of birds.

However, over the course of “Bird School,” these sixth-graders become budding experts on bird biology, physiology, identification, migration and conservation. My pride in calling myself an “amateur birder” is shot down as, squinting into my binoculars, I ask a girl next to me why I can’t see anything. “Maybe it’s because you still have one eye cap on,” she giggles.

I hide my embarrassment behind my binoculars. It takes me a moment to locate the bird as it flutters around the oak tree. It finally lands on a thin branch, allowing me a good look. It is medium-sized with brownish wings and a black chest speckled in white. I look down at my field guide. Is it a European Starling? "Yes, it is," says Feldstein. "You see the brownish color of its bill? It turns bright yellow in spring."

He goes on to explain that the European Starling was introduced to the United States in 1890 by Shakespeare enthusiasts. They strove to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's plays over to the New World. Some didn't survive, while others, like the European Starling, did so well they are now considered invasive species. Who knew the wealth of information related to birds?

“Birds are like the gateway to natural history—they make amazing sounds, they come in pretty colors and they fly!” Feldstein says. I now see what he means.

From College to Bird School

Feldstein and his college buddy, Kevin Condon, got hooked on feathered things during their Natural History Field Quarter through the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz. They’ve been bird aficionados ever since.

After graduating in 2012, they pursued the typical post-college life of environmental studies graduates. Feldstein worked as a UCSC campus steward and nature awareness educator for the Riekes Center. Condon ventured to Yosemite to study frogs.

As much as they loved working with nature, something was missing. Feldstein and Condon realized it wasn’t as cool to geek out about plants and frogs alone. They wanted to share their excitement for natural history with others. They agreed that birds were a common denominator.

The two friends set off on a bike ride down the Pacific Coast. Their plan was to visit middle schools from northern California to San Diego to raise children’s eyes to the skies and preach the word of the bird.

Feldstein and Condon on the road. Photo courtesy Darrow Feldstein.

“It wasn’t long after our friends dropped us off on the Oregon border that we realized the ‘crazy’ behind what we were doing,” says Feldstein. With bikes loaded with everything from camping gear and food to 24 pairs of binoculars and four stuffed birds donated by UCSC’s Natural History Museum, travel was laborious. “It took both of us to pick up one bike if it fell over,” says Feldstein.

The ride didn’t go as planned. “A week and 200 miles in, Kevin’s tire exploded,” says Feldstein, “causing a roadside avalanche of bike, gear and rider.” Condon’s arm was broken—and on their proposed first day of teaching, no less.

Out in the boonies of Garberville, the closest thing they found to a hospital was a six-bed clinic, and not a single person who could operate on Condon’s broken arm. He was transferred to Oakland for surgery the next day.

Feldstein and Condon had hit a dead end, but quitting was not in the cards for these strong-willed bird pioneers. They summoned an old friend from Field Quarter who showed up to the rescue, driving Feldstein’s old minivan.

Back on track, this time on four wheels instead of two, they picked up where they’d left off. Working their way down the coast, Feldstein and Condon visited a new school each day from Monday to Friday. Their goal was to get students and teachers doing hands-on, interactive workshops in nature’s finest classroom: the outdoors.

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Students honed journaling and observational skills. They held specimens and investigated the dynamics of flight lift with the help of a fan. They played migration games and learned how to apply their observations to the real world through citizen science websites like eBird.org.

“We worked with every type of student and every kind of school,” Feldstein says, “homeless children, foster care children, one-room schoolhouses, public schools, private schools and even a school in Carmel that had its own bird sanctuary.”

They checked off the last school on their list in December of 2014. Since their debut in October, Feldstein and Condon had traversed nearly 750 miles from Crescent City to San Diego, working with 24 schools, 72 classes and over 1700 students from pre-school to high school.

They were satisfied. The adventure was real and the experience life-changing, but it was time to get back to the real world. The friends split ways again, Feldstein took off to Yosemite to research owls while Condon lent his efforts to an endangered Pika project in the rocky mountains.

But it seemed the real world had other plans for Feldstein and Condon.

'More Bird School'

Out of the blue, Feldstein received an email from one of the schools they’d visited. It was the first of many. “We got emails from parents and teachers asking when we would be back,“ says Feldstein.

Feldstein and Condon couldn’t ignore the obvious—it was a dream come true. The Bird School was back.

“We agreed to do it again, but a little differently,” says Feldstein. “We needed to narrow down the scope of our project.” They decided to focus on schools in the Bay Area to give them more than a one-time workshop.

“We had to divide and conquer,” says Feldstein. He took on curriculum-building while Condon handled the fundraising and bookkeeping. They also took a couple interns, like Osborne, under their wings to help out and expand the Bird School empire.

Now, they plan for five-week life science units with individual classes to delve deeper into topics on birds.

"We don’t teach as much as we facilitate,” says Feldstein. He can't put it better than the guys from the BEETLES Project at the Lawrence Hall of Science, 'don’t be the sage on the stage, be the guide on the side.' "Our goal is to encourage the students to make observations and ask questions,” Feldstein says.

A student's drawings and observations in their bird journal.

Feldstein calls this process of students developing the skills for self-guided learning "spinning the wheel." This term was coined by Ken Norris, an inspiring figure to Feldstein and the mind behind UCSC's Field Quarter and natural history studies. The Bird School gives the students the information and support they need to essentially teach themselves how to identify birds. Their skills develop with time, practice and the help of field guides, binoculars and their own Bird School journals to record their observations.

There are some key qualities that make Bird Schoolers the successful youth educators they are. “You have to be stoked and a good storyteller,” says Feldstein. “It’s about bringing the kids on a storytelling adventure.” These skills develop with experience.

“You also need to meet the kids where they’re at. Each student has a different background,” Feldstein says. “Some kids know more, some don’t have easy access to nature, some might not even like being outdoors, and some are just really defiant.”

It’s about making the experience approachable and fun for all—student, teacher, Bird Schooler and the random bystander like myself.

Birds Here, There, Everywhere

Back at SLVMS we notice a couple of wide, dark pairs of wings riding a hot air s tream above the school as we migrate towards the courtyard. One boy reckons they’re ravens (“They’re big and they go 'caw, caw'”). He’s right. Out in the meadows a small shape streaks across the grey sky and lands on the thin branch of a birch. “I think it’s a brown-headed cowbird,” one girl speculates. “It’s small, plump and brown, it looks like a chestnut.” She is wrong—it’s a brewer’s blackbird—but she gets an A+ for effort.

Darting back and forth between binocular grimaces and flipping through the field guides, we identify five bird species based on their color, shape, sound and beak size. We see ravens, brewer’s blackbirds, American crows, European starlings and an Anna’s hummingbird. It whizzes overhead on the way back to its cozy nest as we head back to our warm classroom.

I find myself baffled. Here I am, a biology student tagging along on a 6th-grade birding trip on school grounds in the middle of winter, and we've counted more birds than I see any day. It makes me wonder how much amazing wildlife flies by me unnoticed.

Birds are everywhere. Today, take a moment to go outside and sync into your senses. No binoculars necessary, just a pair of ears and eyes. You’ll be surprised to realize how alive the world around you really is. Give nature the attention it deserves, and it will give back.

Feldstein and Condon’s hard work and perseverance has paid off. In December 2015, the Bird School partnered up with the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History. This old friend, formerly the UCSC Natural History Museum that lent the boys their first stuffed, feathered models, now provides The Bird School with a steady flow of funding from UCSC's Social Sciences Division. This covers about half the project's budget. Feldstein, Condon and interns are in charge of fundraising the rest so they can keep doing what they do so well: instruct, inspire and engage the community with birds.

Is your child/student missing a Bird School Project experience at their school? Visit birdschoolproject.com and contact Kevin and Darrow to set something up! Or donate to the cause and help the Bird School spread real-world environmental education and change in the community.

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