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Lawrence: Green Teens and Urban Birds

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Benjamin Padilla is the Community Outreach Coordinator at Groundwork Lawrence. He is serving his first term with MassLIFT. You can find his blog entries here.

One of the goals that I want to accomplish during my time as an AmeriCorps member at Groundwork Lawrence is to work towards instilling a deeper understanding of the urban environment as an active ecosystem, and to develop a long lasting appreciation for the natural environment among the people of Lawrence.

Last month I took a step toward the accomplishment of that goal. Groundwork Lawrence’s Green Team is a group of 10 local high school students that study topics related to the environment, urban gardening, and healthy living, and lead projects, initiatives, and events related to these topics in the city of Lawrence. Fellow MassLIFT-AmeriCorps member, Abby Beissinger—who runs the Green Team—and I partnered up on a project in which we would introduce the Green Team to the knowledge and skills associated with bird watching, and then they would use what they had learned to survey bird diversity in Den Rock Park, the city’s most significant urban wild space.

I was a little bit concerned about how interested and engaged the Green Teamers would be; I mean, let’s not be na?ve, birders don’t exactly have a stellar reputation among high schoolers these days. As I prepared for the lesson/presentation portion of the activity I hoped for the best but was expecting disinterested stares to greet me, much like many of the college students I taught as a graduate student. I wanted to get them excited, to show them that with a little bit of looking and listening you could find some beautiful and amazing organisms right in Lawrence.

Urban BirdingPeregring watching in LawrenceStuffed hawks

Colorful pictures of birds and trees can only go so far in capturing the attention of teenagers, so, in order to pack some “wow-factor” into my presentation I made arrangements to borrow some museum specimens from my alma mater, Gordon College. I contacted one of my former professors and picked up several beautiful preserved bird specimens, many of which I had prepared myself. Looking at museum specimens allows you to see birds in a whole new light, the details in feathers, scales on the legs and feet, incredible diversity of bill size and shape, even familiar “trash birds” like pigeons show amazing glossy purples and blues when viewed up close. At the very least, I hoped that the uniqueness of holding a stuffed (dead) bird would be enough to add some excitement.

In the end I was surprised with the level of engagement and involvement I got from the Green Team. With little to no background in the subject, everything was new, constant questions showed a real interest in many of them. The museum specimens topped it off with reactions ranging from a grossed out refusal to touch, to a desire to learn how to stuff a bird. A few days later, our birding trip in Den Rock Park was just as fun. Although we didn’t see huge numbers, incredibly rare species, or great diversity, everything was new and exciting for them, from black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches in the woods, to mallards and a red-tailed hawk in the marsh.

Since then several Green Team members have been asking about doing more birding events, and may even participate in an upcoming birding competition this winter. More importantly, this experience renewed in me the desire to introduce people, specifically youth, to the wonders of the world around them. Once someone has had the opportunity, and taken the time to stop, look, listen, and learn, a whole new world of wonder, exploration, and stewardship can be opened up, and having the chance to open that door for someone is fantastic.