Oh, so it’s not a bird?

Mixed in with all the COVID-19 chaos, I have occasionally been teaching the group of 6th graders who did not go to Outdoor School a science unit about bird adaptations.

On Tuesday, we did a fun experiment where we used a random assortment of kitchen objects as “beaks” and attempted to collect “food” with them to see how certain types of beaks worked best for collecting certain types of food. The full version of the experiment involved testing every food item with every tool, but since my teaching time was abbreviated down to 40 minutes instead of two hours, we improvised. The “tools” were a straw, a toothpick, a plastic spoon, and our fingers used as pincers (two fingers only – no handfuls allowed). I used plastic cups to be “bird stomachs,” which had to be filled with “food” by the “beaks” and an assortment of food items including goldfish crackers, raisins, ice cream sprinkles, sunflower seeds, small colored beads to be grubs and big bugs, and big wooden beads to be nuts (so no one died from food allergies). All the science teachers had gone off to outdoor school, so I did not have access to a science lab for more specific tools. I was quite excited to discover that I am the type of person who can rustle up science experiment materials from the contents of my kitchen at 6am! They may not have actually learned what they were supposed to from the experiment, due to its truncation, but they had fun and I kept three groups of sixth graders from eating all of my science experiment materials, so I decreed that to be a success.

On Tuesday, we looked at bird foot adaptations, and they got to design their own birds. The sky was the limit on what they could do, as long as they included at least four adaptations that worked reasonably with the habitat and predators that they had chosen. Some of the combinations were hilarious. One student created a raptor that lived on ocean cliff faces. It had a 17 foot wingspan, a fierce raptor beak, and one taloned foot and one paddling foot so it could easily manipulate its environment regardless of the whether it was in the water or hunting from the cliffs. A resourceful, multipurpose tool kind of bird.

Today, our field trip was cancelled, and our Outdoor School students were being pulled back from their trip early, amongst other draconian measures abruptly and immediately implemented in my state and many others last night in order to make a stand against the spread of the coronavirus. The kids were on edge, attendance plummeted, and everyone was confused. Conversations were tinged with the kind of desperation-edged hilarity one hears from children who are frightened and confused by situations they do not understand. It seemed like a day to take the kids outside to explore.

A colleague told me yesterday that there was a pond right at the edge of our campus. (I wondered why I heard frogs as night descended on parent conference day last week!) I told the students that I had seen a robin and a goldfinch as I walked to my portable classroom near the pond that morning, so we were going to go outside to see what we could discover. When some students asked how I knew what sort of birds I had seen, others immediately responded that I knew by the shape and their beaks. They must have learned something earlier in the week after all! I instructed the students on adding a quickly devised observation guide to their nature journals, and we headed outside. Amongst the chatter of 20 sixth graders who unexpectedly found themselves outside on a sunny March morning, there were bursts of bird observations as we walked to the pond and the children gradually relaxed.

“I see a bird flying!”

“I hear birds chirping. Can we put chirping on our observation charts?”

“If I see a bird and hear it chirping, do I mark it down in both columns on the chart?”

“How many different types of birds are making those sounds, Mrs. Karp?”

Once we got to the pond, surrounded by a small stand of trees, the kids spread themselves out around it, and a hush fell over them. Soon, whispers punctured the air as students heard multiple types of birds, spotted a woodpecker-carved nesting hole in a snag, listened to a variety of types of birds chittering, squawking, and singing. Some students realized that they heard different birds as they walked around the pond, and got deeper into or out of the surrounding trees. Others discovered that if they turned back toward the school and looked across the playing fields, they saw different types of birds engaged in different activities. And then, much to the kids’s surprise, there were the ducks.

“Mrs. Karp, are those birds or lumps of moss?”

“On the log? Those are ducks. They are sleeping.”

Moments later, another pair of mallard ducks swooped across the pond. Seeing the first pair and a lot of eleven year olds, they wisely veered away, looking for a quieter pond on which to land. Observant students briefly held their breaths, and then discussion broke out again.

“Whoa! What were those, Mrs. Karp?”

“Those were ducks. A pair of mallard ducks.”

“Oh. So they are not birds then?”

“Yes, ducks ARE birds. Go ahead and put them on your chart.”

The less observant students on the other side of the pond debated the nature of the sleeping ducks on the log.

“Ducks cannot fly,” one girl asserted.

“Yes, they can,” I countered. “Some ducks migrate very long distances. Ducks can fly very well.”

Insert shocked faces here.

“No, I think they just swim.”

“Trust me, ducks can fly. A pair just flew by, but you missed them.”

A long and dubious silence ensued.

“I feel like maybe geese can fly.”

“Yes, geese can fly too. Some of them also migrate long distances.”

“Hmmmmmm.”

After a half an hour of observation, we walked back to school and then discussed what we had seen and heard.

The students may not have learned a great deal of science in our scrambled and confused Outdoor School week, but for one fine moment, they basked in nature, listened to what was occurring around them, and observed nature closely.

And maybe, just maybe, they will remember that ducks ARE birds, and they can, indeed, fly.

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