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Enraptured by Raptors

Steel Students Discover a Love for Birds

Picking the bones of rodents and smaller birds from a tight ball of fur bound together by what is essentially owl vomit, one student declared: “This is horrible. This is disgusting.” Yet she could barely contain the smile that was spreading across her face.

How did a dozen students from Dara Henry’s learning support classroom at Nicetown’s Steel Elementary School come to dissect owl pellets at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE)? If you’re familiar with Need in Deed, it may not surprise you to learn that it was the students’ passion for learning about birds and their desire to promote animal welfare that led them here.

Dara’s students – who range in age from 9 to 12 years old – have significant learning differences, but when Dara heard about NID, she saw an opportunity to help her students find out “what inspires them, what’s going to get them interested.” Through a process of research, debate, interviews and asking questions, the group came to consensus around the topic of caring for animals, especially wildlife. By connecting curriculum targets to this topic, particularly around reading and writing goals, Dara has seen her students’ achievements soar.

“At the beginning of the year, they didn’t want to write one paragraph. Now they’re writing seven or more,” Dara shared at a recent professional development session led by NID Network teachers who work in learning support classrooms. Bringing in community partners, including an ornithologist, helped the students narrow their focus to wild birds.

During a recent visit with their classroom partners, Anthropologie’s Meg Liekar and Joanna Follman, the students were bursting with pride to show off their research projects to these special guests. From blue-footed boobies to hummingbirds, the students taught their guests about the stunning range of biodiversity in the bird kingdom.

Still, a piece of the puzzle was missing: how do humans harm birds, and what can we do to help?

This is where SCEE came in: with the support of Anthropologie, a mini-grant from NID, and a contribution from Dara, the students had the opportunity learn about birds and other wildlife straight from the experts at the Center’s 340 acre nature preserve in the city’s Roxborough section.

After learning from SCEE’s Damien Ruffner, Anna Marchefka and Camilla Rivera-Tinsley about the anatomy of different birds – how they hear, see and fly – the students had a chance to dissect owl pellets to learn about what these raptors eat. Camilla and Damien then introduced the students to several of SCEE’s animal ambassadors – including Russell the fishing crow and Loki the eastern screech owl.

By the time the class headed out, they were brimming with ideas about how they can help birds in our area. Even more, “That’s disgusting!” had become “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Photos, top to bottom: students dissect owl pellets; SCEE Educator Damien Ruffner and Loki