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Native Plants = Happy Birds = Healthy Communities

Creating Bird Habitat on San Rafael School Campuses

Missy Wipf


"Ahh! Something just moved on my plant! It's crawling into my desk. Ahh!!"

I'm standing at the front of a fourth-grade classroom at Bahia Vista Elementary School in San Rafael's Canal Community, helping students identify native plants, when this unanticipated scene unfolds. The spider in question has made its way into the classroom on a plant—a native plant destined for this school's first habitat garden. As a first step in creating their garden, the students are learning about the importance to birds of a dozen species of native plants.

I reassure the very excited class that this spider is harmless and gently remove it from the girl's desk, where the spider was seeking refuge, to release it outside. This adventure is typical of the unexpected learning opportunities that occur frequently when we are working with students, particularly those in urban communities. It gave us an excellent chance to show the children how native plants are important to an ecosystem: they support diverse native birds and other wildlife, like spiders—which are also bird food!
A student places a card with information about one of the native plant species in his school's new habitat garden. Photos by Missy Wipf/PRBO.

As one of PRBO's Conservation Educators, I have been helping deliver science education programs in schools and after-school programs in San Rafael's Canal Community over the past five years. This fall we began a six-part program on local bird ecology, which culminated in the creation of schoolyard habitat gardens. Other activities in this program focus on identifying local habitats, native birds and native plants, and on the importance of healthy habitat for birds and for people in their communities.

Our Canal Bird Science offering fits perfectly with the goals of PRBO's education program: to broaden students' view of "who a scientist is" to include ornithologists, women, and minorities; to teach some of the basic skills needed to be a scientist; to increase the children's awareness of birds in their communities; and to inspire a new generation of scientists. Specific to this project, we also hope to broaden students' perspective of their schools, homes, and communities—places that can provide habitat to the wildlife of the San Francisco Bay region!
Signs in the students' habitat garden identify the native plants and tell of their importance to birds.

The habitat garden project culminated in student action. Children planted 25 native plants in their school garden. They also created and displayed interpretive cards and posters with important conservation messages informing other students, teachers, and parents about native birds and plants—an excellent example of the positive actions schoolchildren can take in their communities.

The success of this program is due to the support and participation of teachers, students, principals, and garden coordinators at each school, and to generous donations of native plants from the Marin Art and Garden Center and Sloat Nursery. All of our work in the Canal Community is made possible by support from the Marin Community Foundation.

Delivering science education programs to schools in the North Bay Area advances PRBO's mission of conserving birds and their ecosystem through science and outreach. Not only do our programs show students and adults the role of science in conservation; they also introduce children to the wonder and beauty of the natural world, fostering a connection that we believe will contribute to the next generation of conservation scientists and environmental stewards.