The schoolyard rang with shouts of "There's a gull!" and "It's a hawk!" and "I hear a chickadee." Nothing escaped the notice of a group of avid schoolkids as their sharp eyes scanned the skies and the woods next to their school. Blue jays delighted them, they chuckled at nuthatch antics and gazed in awe as a hawk soared overhead.
There is nothing like the boundless energy of a group of 9- and 10-year-olds, as I learned recently on an outing with the Burroughs Birders. The kids meet weekly at the end of their school day to discover the bird life around their south Minneapolis school.
Everyone bemoans the fact that kids are spending less time outdoors these days, preferring the indoors, where their cellphones, video games and computers are. Many kids know more about zebras (from watching nature shows on TV) than they do about the frogs in a nearby pond. This kind of hands-off approach to the natural world has far-reaching implications that cause conservationists to wrinkle their brows: If kids don't spend time outside, they won't learn to value nature and won't be inspired to preserve the natural world as adults.
A movement to get kids back in touch with nature was jump-started by Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder." I read this important book when it was published in 2008, and, like many, became concerned about a future run by indoors people. Many of us have been trying to come up with ways to get kids engaged with trees and swamps and birds and bugs.
Kids and birds
But Amy Simso Dean, a birder and parent, has taken the bull by the horns and almost single-handedly is immersing kids in the world outside the walls of their school, creating a club called the Burroughs Birders.
"I started the group to share my love of birding with kids," says Dean, who was already known to her kids' friends as a mom who enjoyed birds.
Dean knows exactly how to focus all that youthful energy and keep the kids engaged. She started off a Tuesday afternoon session with a snack, a discussion of birds the kids had observed lately and then a photo quiz. They were astoundingly good at identifying about 15 bird species, from a downy woodpecker to a mallard.
Next, the kids burst outdoors, happily lining up for binoculars lent by the Minnesota Ornithologists Union, then running toward the feeders Dean set up at the back of the Burroughs Elementary School property. (Other donors to the club include the Minnesota River Valley Audubon Club, Eagle Optics and a local Realtor.) At one point a nuthatch demonstrated eating upside down — and pooping.
As Dean told them, "Birds don't do No. 1 or No. 2, they do No. 3: poop mixed with pee." This is just the kind of fact that appeals to inquiring young minds, and the kids hung onto every word.
Eyes on the skies
They recognized the large bird obligingly soaring overhead as a hawk, then eagerly listened to volunteer helper Amber Burnette, a Raptor Center employee, note the features that made it a red-tailed hawk. Canada geese flew by in a V, generating a great deal of interest ("they're really heading south!"). Toward the end of the session the young birders darted along Minnehaha Creek, scaring up a great blue heron, creating quite a buzz.
"My idea is to open their eyes to birds, but also to nature in general, to get them outside and noticing things," says Dean, a freelance writer and instructor at the Loft Literary Center. "They love it and they're learning — you can hear it when they share their sightings each week."
After tagging along with the Burroughs Birders, I came away with a good feeling about these kids and their future impact on the natural world. They exhibited such glee and delight in the birds they saw and in information about how birds live. This experience will be something they'll build on as they grow up.
"I may not be able to change the world, but maybe I can inspire some kids who can then go on to change the world," Dean says.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com