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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — If you want to know what types of birds you might see in northwest Wilmington right now, ask a seventh grader at the Tatnall School.
For two decades, class after class of these middle school students have spent a single day each spring walking the grounds of the school property and checking off every bird they see.
If you know the sordid tale of the brown-headed cow bird - females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and get free baby bird care - you might want to leave them off the list. But these students know better. Every bird counts. Every bird plays a role in the campus ecosystem.
The story of the campus bird count has its beginning in 1990, said seventh and eighth grade science teacher Karen Barker.
Someone was cleaning out files and discovered a campus bird survey over two seasons - from 1965 and 1966, she said. So the lists were turned over to Barker who revived the idea and built a series of outdoor science lessons around it with the first bird count in 1991.
"That's some significant data," she said.
And the school property - 110 acres plus an adjoining 90 acres of open space provide "a lot of habitat and a lot of birds."
The spring count is the culmination of months of classwork that includes research skills, tools to use to figure out what a bird is if you don't know the species and some fun activities like making a movie and dressing up like a pre-selected species of bird, she said.
"But the biggest thing is knowing that the birds are there," Barker said.
So on a morning in spring, Barker passes our binoculars to her students and is joined by two birding experts: Dave Panichelle, who works at the school, and Hank Davis, who has children there.
"If you hear something, we'll stop and try to figure out what it is," Barker said.
One student gets a clipboard with a list of the most common birds they would expect to see on the property. The task: note every bird.
And then the fun begins as a bird swoops by.
"What do you see? Small, medium or large?" Barker asks.
Pretty quickly, using the key tools of bird identification, the team concludes it is a starling and they add it to the list.
Oh, and Barker adds, "You have to look up."
Then she pauses: "Do you guys hear all the noise?"
It's the sounds of chatting house sparrows.
Up above, there is the large, dark shadow of a lone bird.
"Is that a turkey vulture," someone shouts out.
They walk by a pond and Barker has them stop
"I want you to look at the bird perched on the orange, upright post. Those are tree swallows and in the right light they are shimmery, sapphire blue," she said.
And they are, as they flit and fly in the early morning light. Many carry nesting materials in their bills.
The group walked into a wooded area and begins to notice other birds.
"Guys, we've got something else in here," Davis said, as he points to a bird perched in a tree.
"That's a female," he said. As it flies away, he tells the students what they just saw was an orchard oriole.
"Take a look at those birds flying to the right," Davis said. "Those birds were grackles."
And then, the students start to point out the birds they see and hear.
"Is that a red wing blackbird?" asks Sarah Carroll, 13, of Landenberg, Pennsylvania.
It isn't, but there are plenty of red wing black birds in the area.
This black bird turns out to be a common grackle. You can tell, Davis said, by looking at the full tail feathers.
Davis, Panichelle and Barker each encourage the students to look at the features of bird that help with identification such as the color and shape of the bill and the sounds that they make.
Singer sees a distant bird, hesitates for a moment, looks again: "Oh, it's a bluebird."
As they walk along an open field, toward a woods, Barker points out that birds "really like edges."
And here, they start to discover species they haven't yet heard or seen.
They hear the flute-like calls of a wood thrush.
"It can sing two notes at the same time," Barker said.
"Oh, there goes a pileated" woodpecker, Davis said.
And then Davis stops and listens.
"What I'm hearing is a scarlet tanager," he said.
With the bird count almost over, it's time for the serious work. The students will take their data and compare it to counts of the past. For instance, Barker may ask them to look at the 1965 count to see what was common then but maybe isn't common now.
"I hope, that if nothing else, we open their eyes," she said.
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com
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