February 26, 2024

Conservation Day brings the classroom outdoors

Fulton Elementary School students learned, in an interactive presentation, how birds migrate and the dangers they face on the way to their seasonal homes. Students also learned how they can create safe spaces for migrating birds by putting out water, shelter and bird food. The presentation was one of 32 stations at the Tri-County Fourth Grade Conservation Day. The annual event, at Mississippi Palisades State Park, brings fourth-grade classes to the park to learn in an outdoor classroom about soil, water and wildlife conservation.

SAVANNA, Ill. — How do you get a group of excited fourth-graders to pay attention and learn something about bird migration? You teach them to fly.

“We are giving them an idea of what it would be like to be a bird traveling north to south and making that journey,” said Angela Miller.

Miller is the 4-H program coordinator for University of Illinois Extension in Jo Daviess County.

The presentation on bird migration was one of 32 stations at the Tri-County Fourth Grade Conservation Day. The annual event planned by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Carroll, Jo Daviess and Whiteside counties brings fourth-grade students from those three counties out to Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna.

In a series of outdoor classrooms at the state park, students learned about soil, water and wildlife conservation. This year, some 600 students attended the event.

“I try to come up with a program that will capture their attention and provide some hands-on activity and some movement,” Miller said.

During the presentation, Miller used boxes to represent tall buildings; students waved pool noodles to represent hurricanes and severe storms as well as wind turbines; students held jump ropes to simulate power lines; a student held a small Angry Bird figure from the popular video game and movie to mimic actual predatory birds; a student wore a pair of costume cat ears to represent cats and other predators; a student squirted water from a spray bottle to represent pesticides that can endanger migrating birds; and a student with a bicycle horn represented vehicles.

Hula hoops represented safe spaces, yards, parks and sanctuaries where migrating birds can find shelter, water, food and rest.

At a signal from Miller, the rest of the students “migrated,” running among the obstacles to make it to their seasonal home on the other side of the obstacle course.

“How many of you failed to migrate?” she asked after the session and only a few hands went up. “We made it pretty good. We only got off course a few times.”

Miller also offered some tips for students to take home.

“What can we do, what can you do to help our birds migrate safely? Each of you can create a safe space. You can put out water for them and food. A pine cone rolled in peanut butter is a great snack for a migrating bird,” she said.

Miller also encouraged students to educate themselves about the dangers, like pesticides.

“What about pesticides? We can educate ourselves and be careful when and where we use them,” she said.

Athena, a great horned owl, helped educate fourth graders about the everyday dangers that face birds in northern Illinois. Presenter Todd Johnston from Northern Illinois Raptor Rehabilitation talked to students about birds like Athena and Hudson, a red-tailed hawk, and answered questions.

Just over the hill from Miller’s station was Todd Johnston, with Northern Illinois Raptor Rehabilitation in Loves Park. Two of Johnston’s co-presenters showed the real consequences of the dangers that birds face.

Johnston had with him two permanent residents of the rehab center. Athena, a great horned owl, was hit by a car and underwent a partial amputation of her right wing.

Hudson, a red-tailed hawk, had a collision with a power line and injured a bone in his wing that can’t be restructured.

“We use our permanent residents for educational purposes, but our main purpose is to get injured birds, whether they were poisoned or hit by something, rehabilitated and returned outside,” Johnston said.

He said that while some cases can be helped, others cannot.

“Between our avian vet and our volunteers, we try to get them put back together and out in the wild if we can. Most of the time it’s successful. Sometimes, especially if we are dealing with pesticides, especially rodenticides, it doesn’t have a good outcome usually ever,” he said.

Johnston, who is a falconer and hunts with falcons when he’s not helping them get back on their feet and in the air, said students are fascinated with Athena and Hudson.

“They’ve never seen an owl or a hawk up close and their eyes get huge when I open the doors to the birds’ cases,” he said.

Johnston said questions range from wanting to pet the birds to questions about their diet.

“They ask, can I touch them? And do they eat licorice?” he said.

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor