DCPS sixth graders team up for bird conservation

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Special to Dorchester Banner/Board of Education
Sixth graders plant native plants in South Dorchester School’s new bird habitat. The plants will provide fruit, seeds, and attract pollinators to the habitat.

CAMBRIDGE — “What’s that black bird with a little bit of red on its shoulder?” one of Dorchester County’s sixth graders asked a Pickering Creek Audubon Center educator during an in-school lesson on planning healthy bird habitat.

Sixth grade science students spent the school year teaming up for bird conservation in their schoolyards and communities through the Audubon Conservation Team for Birds (ACT 4 Birds) program. This partnership between Pickering Creek Audubon Center and Dorchester County Public Schools (DCPS) consists of several in-class visits to each of the sixth grade science classes at Mace’s Lane Middle School, North Dorchester Middle School, and South Dorchester K-8 School, and multiple field experiences, culminating in the creation of a new bird-friendly habitat on each of the school’s campuses this May.

In the fall, students spent time learning the components of a healthy habitat and studying bird adaptations like the shape of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s beak or the length of a Great-Blue Heron’s legs. Sixth graders researched local birds like Northern Cardinals, Barred Owls, and Wood Ducks and were encouraged to think of ways to create “bird-friendly” communities in their own backyards and schoolyards, providing birds with critical habitat components like food, water, shelter, and space.

Following the Building Bird-Friendly Communities lesson, each DCPS sixth grade science class visited Pickering Creek for a field experience to explore and investigate the level of “bird friendliness” in different habitats at Pickering Creek. While exploring wetlands, forests, grasslands, ponds, and fields students were asked to find examples of habitat components that would be good for birds in that habitat and to also look for components that could be improved. The students explored a freshwater wetland to examine why that habitat attracts different birds at different times of the year; hiked through a forest and meadow while acting as birds looking for food and cover; classified habitat layers in the forests, wetlands, and fields; and used binoculars, bird calls, and bird guides to identify birds throughout the day. Students left with a sense of the habitat requirements for many local wildlife and how some of those requirements could be added or improved in their own school yard.

The DCPS sixth graders continued being bird ambassadors in the spring with a visit to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. With knee-high boots and can-do attitudes, students, teachers, and Pickering Creek educators ventured into the marsh for an experiential habitat adventure. After a muddy trek and observational hike into the marsh, students paired up and planted native Smooth Cordgrass (spartina alterniflora) to protect the marsh and provide critical habitat for birds and other wildlife.

This spring, DCPS’s sixth grade science teachers led a lesson to survey and evaluate each schoolyard. Magnifying glasses and data sheets in hand, students observed, recorded and synthesized their data as a group and determined the best place to build healthy bird habitat. They used math along with science to figure out how many plants were needed for each area and which ones were best suited for each location. Classes chose beneficial native plants like swamp milkweed, inkberry and goldenrod that provide fruit, seeds and attract pollinators. “I’m bonding with my plant,” quipped a student from South Dorchester School after planting an Arrowwood shrub.

After a year of learning, researching and planning, several days in May were spent by students and teachers outdoors planting new habitat at each of the three middle schools. The sixth graders worked in teams, digging holes, carefully planting, mulching and watering their new habitat garden.

The ACT 4 Birds program promotes curiosity and observational skills that build understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Planting bird habitat allows students to take ownership of a habitat restoration project within their own community. The groundwork has been laid for next year’s incoming sixth graders who will accompany their teachers to visit the habitat regularly for observation, recording of data, nature journaling, bird watching and using their schoolyard as a place for scientific inquiry and learning.

ACT 4 Birds is funded by NOAA’s B-WET program, and environmental education program that promotes locally relevant experiential learning for K-12 students and their teachers.

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