PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 145, Summer 2006: Notes from the Field

And it only took a little three-gram bird....


Providing Science Learning to Bay Area Students

Missy Wipf

Farallon Seabirds
CEO/President's Column
Snowy Plovers
Palomarin Nest Search
Education Outreach
Avian Influenza
Focus on Marine Wildlife
PRBO Friends Ted and Pat Eliot
2006 Annual Meeting

It's 9:30 AM as I walk into the empty classroom after a long morning drive. Students will be returning shortly from their morning recess. As I make some space for the activity items I have brought, I admire the art and writing pieces placed on the classroom walls-- diversity and justice obvious subjects of the students' work. I have my work cut out for me, presenting the subject of native songbirds and environmental indicators to fourth-grade students who live in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco. The bell rings, and with a scuffle and clamor, children reenter the room.

"Who are you?" demands a lanky girl with her hair in beaded braids. Before I can respond, another student reads the board and asks, "Who's 'PRBO--Missy'?" "P-R-B-O" stands for Point Reyes Bird Observatory, the organization I work for, and Missy is my name," I explain. "You mean like Missy Elliott!?" a student shouts. This gets the whole class laughing, and some to start imitating the infamous female rapper. I can't help but laugh. I'm far from the African-American rap artist, with my Scandinavian-German heritage and (some say) Midwestern accent. The teacher intervenes at this point, to get the class to settle down.

"Yes, my name is Missy, but I'm a biologist who works for PRBO to teach people about birds and their habitats. Now I have a few questions for all of you," I challenge them. "Why do people study birds?" I ask, scanning the room for raised hands eager to answer. I spot one toward the back of the room. "Because they're cool!" says the student attached to the hand. "Yes, I think birds are cool too, but there is an even more important reason why biologists study birds. Ornithologists, or bird biologists, know that birds are good 'indicators' of the environment's health.
Students are captivated by the bird specimen Missy holds. Photo by Alix Blair

This means they can teach us a lot about how healthy their homes are, which is our home, too." "Do you want to know if the environment, our environment, is healthy?" "Yes!" the grade-four students shout in unison.

It takes me a moment to calm the class, but this is what I look forward to every time I teach. Such moments keep me going--not only in my work to increase environmental awareness but also in my life.

Now it's time for me to reveal one of the stuffed bird specimens, which we use to teach people of all ages about identification of native birds and their amazing adaptations, and to elicit a connection to birds. The students know something exciting is going to come out of the box as soon as they see me reach for it. As you might guess, there is a lot of "oohing" and "ahhing" (which happens regardless of the age group) as I pull out a stuffed Anna's Hummingbird. I often recognize an immediate change in attitude, in even the most withdrawn or brooding student, when the birds come out. This time is no different: I can see it in the children's faces.

After I've explained today's activity and begun handing specimens to the students, it hits me that I have connected with them today! And it only took a little three-gram bird to do it.
Missy Wipf in her office at PRBO, holds a Northern Flicker study skin. Photo by Claire Peaslee/PRBO

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