As soon as school lets out, 14 students at Burroughs Community School run from their classrooms to the school yard and collectively drop their backpacks. After a quick snack, they rush to strap on their binoculars and start looking outward and upward. “Bird! Look there’s a bird!” they shout, and one parent couldn’t be happier.
Amy Simso Dean is a mother of two and founder of the Burroughs Birding Club, which had its inaugural meeting this April. Each week during April and May, her flock of 14 kids (two are hers) meet to learn and have fun discovering birds.
The idea for the club was hatched when she was giving talks about raptors to students at Burroughs as part of their bird study unit. Whenever she’d give the talks, she saw so much interest and wonder in her audience. “So many kids had stories about birds they had seen. I can’t count the number of times that kids (and parents) would stop/email/text me to ID a bird. I kicked the idea around for a while. Fourth grade seemed like a good age to be able to manage a group of kids in the field.”
Thanks to grants from Minnesota Ornithologists Union and Minnesota Valley Audubon Chapter, and additional support from Birds and Stuff, Eagle Optics, Realtor Bob Williams, The Raptor Center, and Fort Snelling State Park, each club member is equipped with binoculars, checklists, a field guide, and a notebook. Some students sketch the birds they see, while others mark them off on a checklist, as they enthusiastically explore the grounds and sky along Minnehaha Creek.
Bald eagle, check! Cardinal, check! But Fish?
During the first meeting, Simso Dean had two students demonstrate a skill-building exercise. It taught kids to watch for movement and then point their binoculars in that direction. As club members walked along the creek that first afternoon, they saw a total of nine bird species (and one fish — a Northern pike.) At the second meeting, they walked to Lake Harriet. Many species of waterfowl had stopped on the lake to rest and refuel before continuing their migration north. It was a great opportunity for the kids to get up close and see the birds in detail — even their feet. (As Simso Dean suggested in her note to parents that evening, “Google ‘American Coot feet’ and find out what color the kids saw.”) Walking back along the creek, the kids spotted some early spring flowers, and saw a Mourning cloak butterfly on the wing. Even some parents strapped on binoculars that afternoon.
At a time when some city kids lack easy access to outdoor spaces, and others are spending more screen time than ever in front of smartphones and tablets, the Burroughs Birders are making new connections. As spring unfolds, its all about the kids connecting with nature and the outdoors. As Simso Dean remarked, “We may not be able to change the world, but maybe we can inspire a few kids who can then change the world.
Julie Brophy is a volunteer with the Burroughs Birding Club.