Stay-At-Home Field Ornithology

By Kathy Winnett-Murray

What do you do when you have to teach field ornithology during a lockdown?

This is the dilemma that I shared with many college instructors as our institutions, in a domino-like effect rippling across the country, determined that all teaching would be shifted to “remote only” as a result of the growing COVID 19 pandemic. My own institution made the announcement on the cusp of our spring break, which for me marks the annual return of improved field trip weather, refreshed student motivation, and the seasonal influx of migrant birds. For over 30 years, I have capitalized on this changing of the seasons to move all laboratory activity in my Vertebrate Zoology course into the field right after the break, using the opportunity to “practice what we preach” about hands-on, experiential learning. In my class, this means weekly field trips focused mostly on bird identification, combined with several catch-and-release events for getting up close and personal: seining for fish, collecting data on turtle populations, live-trapping small mammals, and mist-netting and bird banding. These activities have always been the highlights of the semester, both for me and for my students. In March, I faced the reality of jettisoning all of this, literally overnight, with no prepared alternative.

At first, I was overwhelmed with an outpouring of resources and tech support from my colleagues, professional societies, publishing companies, and education software developers. Although deeply appreciated, this also presented an information labyrinth to try to navigate. I was already familiar with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s extensive bird resources and had been using Birds of North America and the Macaulay Library for years. So, Cornell was one of my first “go-to” places for online resources, but the thought of packaging this extensive and diverse collection of ornithological information for my students was daunting. 

Then, just three days before my classes were to reconvene remotely, I received an email with the subject line “Free Resources for Teaching Ornithology Online” from the American Ornithological Society, announcing that Cornell’s online Bird Academy classes were being made available to college ornithology instructors free of charge. I had gifted a Bird Academy course to a family member last year, so I was vaguely familiar with the scope and content of Bird Academy. I filed the message into my email folder crammed with similar links for “online transition resources.” The very next day I received an email from the Cornell Lab with the subject line, “How about something POSITIVE this week?” This must be a sign, I thought!

Within the next couple of days, I had submitted a brief application form, and my class had been confirmed for five free Bird Academy courses: Spring Field Ornithology: Northeast; Feeder Birds: Identification and Behavior, and 3 courses from the Be a Better Birder set, Size and Shape, Color and Pattern, and How to Identify Bird Songs. Cornell responded right away to every query and even included syllabi.  I spent the next few days cruising the courses, realizing there was far more packed into them than could possibly be covered in the rest of the semester (Spring Field Ornithology alone is over 20 hours of instruction). Bird Academy provided a great combination of beginning bird identification tools with creative exercises along with access to much more comprehensive ornithological information (everything from Cornell’s bird cams to scientific publications). My task was not to reinvent the wheel, but to create an experience that, even though it could not replicate an in-person field trip, could nonetheless move my students along the same objectives that I had established for my field labs: to be able to identify birds (82 species are included on a class checklist), learn about their natural history, know what to look for morphologically and behaviorally to discriminate among similar species, and appreciate birds in their natural surroundings as an integral part of the environment. We were not going to experience ruffling through the feathers of a warm bird body comparing the plumage of White-crowned Sparrows at different ages, nor were we going to fumble around getting a spotting scope set up to view Common versus Red-breasted Mergansers on a cold day when students would cringe at removing their freezing hands from their pockets. But the Bird Academy resources were going to help me provide my students with the next best thing.

My pandemic “adaptation” required whittling down our free Bird Academy courses to Feeder Birds, 2 chapters of Spring Field Ornithology, and a personalized “pick one” from Be a Better Birder. The instructions provided by Cornell were crystal clear – there were no issues getting all students up and running. For most students, this was their first experience interacting with professional ornithologists other than me. They were surprised that people other than their own prof were so passionate about field ornithology! In the words of one student: “Having a professional resource on how to identify certain birds was useful by providing key ways to differentiate between species using traits like wing shape, beak shape, or field markings. By pointing out specific characteristics, I learned clues that I may not have noticed on my own. I thought it was a great resource.”

For a little more personalized spin, upon completion of Lesson 1 from Spring Field Ornithology, I asked my students to practice local bird ID using Virtual Bird Walk Videos created by our county’s parks and recreation department. I asked students to identify birds in these local “backyard” videos that were also on their checklist. I was able to compare student success with this “backyard” task with students’ quiz scores on Bird Academy (Cornell staff proactively suggested that each student could make screen shots of the dashboard to verify work completed). I tried to create some personal connections in other ways as well. For example, as a follow-up to completing Lesson 5 (Hawks and Owls), I asked each student to complete a “nest watch” journal assignment based on observing the active Red-tailed Hawk and Barred Owl nest cams at the Cornell site. And because stay-at-home orders kept most of us very close to home for most of the time, I encouraged students to connect with their immediate backyard environments, as I found myself doing! I provided an incentive to earn points by asking students to photograph birds in their yard or on their socially-distanced neighborhood walks. This simple activity created welcome opportunities for me to discuss the fine details of bird ID via email with students who had submitted blurry cell phone pictures of distant feathered specks. This was engaging for both parties and authentically demonstrated the importance of comparing field marks, postures, and the range of variation within a species. We would inevitably end up discussing some fascinating tidbit of natural history that connected the student back to Bird Academy resources (e.g. brood parasitism). 

Students experienced lots of beginner’s challenges, such as distinguishing a Chipping Sparrow from an American Tree Sparrow based on a classmate’s backyard feeder photo. House Sparrows were identified as about eight different species in various photo submissions. But we also experienced successes, such as observing the seasonal transition from juncos and chickadees to the first creepers, kinglets, and warblers. My students achieved an average score of 87% on the bird ID portion of their final exam. There are undoubtedly lots of reasons for this, but I’m confident that one of them was having access to exceptional resources at a time when it meant a great deal for all of us to know that other organizations were willing to partner with us to sustain our education and hopefully, to inspire a life-long interest in birds.

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