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Bird Study For Schools

( Originally Published 1910 )



IN securing the introduction of musical study into the public schools of a New England country town, I had occasion to consult the opinion of a prosperous farmer who was considered to be among the more intelligent men of the community. His answer, as nearly as I can quote it, was as follows:

The young ones in our schools can't half of them read so you can understand them. I say, before we teach them anything more, they had better learn how to read!"

This attitude, once common, especially in rural communities, is now, fortunately, buried largely under the advance of more liberal views. The tendency is rather n the opposite direction, to interest the young in many departments of knowledge, so that they will want to read. Sometimes the curriculum may he overcrowded, and this extreme, of course, must be avoided. The need is to find a proper balance and, for one thing, not to so magnify any one aspect of education as to crowd out things which have an important bearing upon life's main human interests.

A great many people today are beginning to ask whether mental training must be confined largely to matters which few people care permanently about and which after graduation are promptly forgotten. Is there not as much intellectual stimulus in things with a human interest, which really enter into the natural furnishing of human life? People observe that prices of staple goods are constantly soaring, that agriculture is handicapped for want of men, and yet that hosts of graduates, whether from city or country, are overcrowding the professions and sedentary employments. There is more than a suspicion that our past system of education somehow spoils many people for their surroundings and fails to develop them along the lines of their natural and proper interests. If some say that only antiquities and philosophies give properly sharpened intellects, it may be an open question whether we are not overstocked with that particular brand of intellect. The fact is that we have been training all children alike for city life, giving country children a prejudice against the country. So we pay the penalty.

Nature is so varied and wonderful that it would be strange if there could be found no proper mental training in knowing her many aspects and understanding her marvelous ways. This is an age of science, and the comforts and advantages of our modern civilization have come largely through studies of nature, learning how to utilize her processes. It is manifestly unfair to our children to equip them with a purely scholastic outfit and leave them really unequipped for their environment in a material world. I believe that we are now on the borders of a tremendous upheaval in education. Within a few years children will be allowed to understand better the world in which they live. Even the city child needs to know the natural world, as a source of inmense benefit and delight. In the country schools emphasis will certainly be laid upon the various phases of nature.

One general phase of the new education will be to train the faculty of observation by teaching and encouraging the young to investigate, to see things for themselves, and to draw their own conclusions. The training of the faculty of observation is one of the great avenues to business success, which in these days comes through original observation in seeing opportunities or possibilities, and working them out. This element is important in every calling, whether it be a " profession," agriculture, manufacture, or commerce. And surely there is just as effective a means of training the mind through science as by Latin classics, useful as is the latter method. Every child alive ought to have some training in nature-study. Not only will it be a means of mental stimulus, but a moral good in occupying attention with things that are wholesome and worth while and a physical benefit in imparting interest in outdoor things to entice the young into the open.

As a matter of fact, such work in the schools is being quite generally begun. Many cities and towns are at the present time introducing it. Without doubt it will soon become universal, and to the next generation it will seem amazing that children were ever allowed to grow up ignorant of the world in which they live. How far the movement has at present gone can be suggested by the response to a circular letter recently sent out, for another purpose, to supervising principals by Mr. E. C. Stiles, supervisor of schools, West Haven, Connecticut. Out of twenty-three answers at present available, thirteen reported nature-study in the curriculum, and of these eleven included bird-study in that course. These schools were of the better class.

Along this line, as a sign of the times showing that the public are beginning to realize the necessity of conserving the great national asset of bird-life in order to save our harvests and trees from insect pests, it is interesting to note that at the last session of the legislature of Illinois a bill was passed making it mandatory that every teacher shall give at least half an hour each week to instruction in kindness to animals and in bird study. It is also provided that in case of failure to do this there shall be a forfeit of part of the salary. It certainly looks as though the coming generations in that State would have intelligent ideas as to the value of bird-life, and we are not rash in believing that the same thing will be true of other States than Illinois, through similar methods.

This movement is so new that it is still in the formative and tentative stage, and no one approved and authorized system or grading in teaching naturestudyhas yet become recognized and adopted. Supervisors and teachers are as yet thrown considerably upon their own resources. There are no particular books which are required to be used. Yet there is one main principle upon which there is general agreement, that just as far as possible this line of study is to be drawn from nature itself, rather than from books. Books may be used as aids, yet unless the pupil can be induced to get acquainted with the bird, flower, or whatever it may be, outdoors in its natural surroundings, or be inspired and interested through the indoor study to seek them out, the main good of the course is lost. One teacher told me that she would rather have a pupil know one bird in wild life than ten from pictures or descriptions. The arousing of intelligent interest in the outdoor world is the supreme purpose of this work, not the cramming of the child with a mass of facts for classroom recitation.

All this is distinctly encouraging for the average teacher. To teach bird-study, for, instance, one need not be a trained ornithologist. That would be unreasonable to expect. But any teacher can have an interest in the. great outdoors, and have or gain an ordinary knowledge of some of the more familiar birds, animals, flowers, trees, and processes, and inspire the children to become familiar with them. About the birds, for instance, teacher and pupils may frankly learn together. Wise teachers, who read the signs of the times, are fitting themselves along this line. Some are attending summer schools with this in view. This line of work is now taken up in most, if not all, normal training schools, and it must hence-forth be considered a necessary part of the training of a well-equipped teacher to know the rudiments of the natural sciences, with a view to being able to teach, or lead, in this inspirational way.

It is no excuse for not teaching the children any-thing about the natural world that the curriculum is already overcrowded. If that is true, so much the worse for the curriculum. It is clearly wrong if the young must learn only books and little or nothing of their surroundings in the world. This must be set right, even if the whole theory and plan of education has to be changed, from kindergarten to university. Indeed there is a growing conviction among educators that more about nature must be taught in the grammar grades and certain other things be postponed or omitted.

The time to begin is not in the high school, but with young children, before their tastes and habits are formed. Some teachers even begin in the first grade. And why not, since by nature every little child is passionately fond of the animals and birds?

This is also suggestive as to where to begin ; of course, with the common local wild birds and animals, especially the birds, because the wild mammalia are mostly scarce or nocturnal, whereas the birds are the forms most easily observed. In my own school experience as a pupil, we began with infusoria and the lower forms of life and worked up toward higher orders. This only came in the high school and from books. This was the wrong order, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.

Some of the larger schools already have teachers of nature-study, or natural science, giving pupils the benefit of trained enthusiasts, which is an excellent plan. In many other cases it will prove feasible to have supervisors of nature-study for groups of schools, as they do for music or art work. But in the smaller schools, and in country towns, for years to come the dependence must be upon the average teacher.

The course in nature study, beginning with birds and animals, usually includes lessons in flowers and trees, and sometimes a little popular geology and astronomy, with chemistry and physics later. I suggest adding to it the common facts of meteorology,—the cause of wind, storm, rain, dew, frost, and so on, things which are matters of daily observation and interest with everyone.

For the guidance of teachers who wish to get some general ideas of how to teach bird-study, I will briefly describe some of the methods now in use. Most teachers use the Audubon Society chart of common birds, and some of the Perry pictures, to show the pupils what the particular birds under discussion are like. These should be used as means to help them to recognize the birds when they see them outdoors.

The usual method is to select certain species of birds which are common in the locality and learn the main facts of their lives, as far as possible from personal observation of the living birds. If they know the bird in life, they are apt to be interested in it, and are glad to supplement their knowledge of their little friend by what they can read or hear. In connection with this study of specific kinds of birds, teachers also impart general information as to such matters as food, travels, nesting, structure, classification, and so on, according to the grade of the pupils, and in a style adapted to their age.

Whenever it is possible, the teacher should show children the birds outdoors. This is often impossible, yet in the country birds can frequently be found right around the schoolhouse. I was once visiting a school close by which there were blossoming apple trees, which were fairly alive with migrant warblers and other resident birds, and I was able to point out to the children quite a number of kinds right from the window. The teacher should try to know at least the more common birds from life. A school superintendent, in visiting a certain school, heard the teacher give a lesson on the house wren. She was doing it from a book, while all the time a wren was singing lustily close by an open window. The teacher, in reply to a question by the supervisor, who knew the bird, replied that she had never seen a wren and had never heard its song!

Miss Abby P. Churchill, instructor in natural science in the State Normal School, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, has sent me an outline of her very excel-lent course in bird-study, which I quote in part. She says:

" I try in the first grade --- or in any grade, if the children are beginners in bird-lore --to have them realize what wonderful little creatures birds are. They never tire of talking about what birds do, what they eat, how they build their nests, etc. The ` First Book of Birds' and ` Bird World' have good material for this purpose. Some of the headings are : Bird Cradles, Baby Birds, How Birds Change Their Clothes, What Birds Eat, A Bird's Education, What Birds Do in Rainy Weather, A Bird's Travels, How Birds Work for Us, How We Can Help the Birds.

" I try to have each child in a certain grade become acquainted with a specified number of birds, in-creasing the number in successive grades. I tried at first assigning certain species, but found it impracticable for the reason that some species would be so rare some years.

" In teaching individual birds, I think the first impressions ought to be obtained from the bird itself. With normal students, however, I find that descriptions beforehand are helpful.

" After the children have been for a walk, I have them find the pictures of the birds they have seen and post them on the bulletin board. They thus serve as reminders while we are talking about the birds. I sometimes make a list of arrivals after the manner of a hotel register. For example: `The Bluebird registered in Fitchburg this morning. How long will he stay? ` The White-throated Sparrow has registered for a short stay. He is on his way to his summer home.'

I find that children are more interested in a bird's disposition and in his character than in his personal appearance. It was for that reason that I made my collection of quotations. [Miss Churchill has compiled a neat volume of 186 pages with a title which adequately describes it,---` Birds in Literature.'] I like to speak of them as testimonials that have been written by people competent to judge. Children al-ways like legends, and certain of the poems they en-joy very much, but they like best of all the characterization of the songs by words.

" In the sixth year we group the birds according to color. In the seventh grade, as the birds arrive, we place them in guilds, using the classification used by Mabel Osgood Wright in her `Citizen Bird,' namely: ` Ground Gleaners, Tree Trappers, Seed Sowers, Sky Sweepers, Wise Watcher's, Cannibal Birds.' In our highest grammar grade we correlate bird study with forestry, taking it under the heading ` Friends of Trees.' The Davis Press of Worcester, Massachusetts, publishes a set of outline drawings of birds that are good for coloring. Bird-Lore also has good ones, but any teacher can make hectograph copies."

These practical suggestions by Miss Churchill are admirable, and should be widely utilized.

Pending a formal placing of the study of birds, as a branch of nature-study, in the regular curriculum, the subject is often studied without studying. In many a schoolroom the Audubon Society colored chart of common birds hangs upon the wall, and most of the children recognize every one of these species which is numerous in their vicinity. Some teachers encourage independent research by having a school or class " bird-list," consisting of the names of species of birds identified by the children, posted on the wall. Whoever first reports a bird has the coveted honor of having the discoverer's own name follow the name of the bird on the list. This often arouses great interest and sets bright eyes scouring the outdoors. Some birds are to be found in the average city, notably in large parks, and more in the suburbs, but it needs a teacher who knows the birds to conduct a school bird-list.

Some other things which are done, or may be done, are as follows : Interesting nature-books are provided in the school library; stories are read about phases of bird-life or incidents of birds, and the pupils are asked for short essays about them; original investigation can be encouraged by the offer of prizes for the best accounts of observations and discoveries afield relating to bird-habits; one or more illustrated lectures on birds are provided each year in many schools. Another pleasant feature of this movement is that teachers often go afield with their pupils, and by so doing are not only able to guide their observations and show them how to work, but also come into friendly sympathy with them and thus secure far more influence than contact in the schoolroom would make possible.

This informal study of birds as it is now being conducted is accomplishing another very desirable end in arousing a spirit of kindliness and thoughtfulness for the feelings of others. When boys are taught to enjoy and appreciate birds and animals, stoning, tormenting, and nest-robbing are no more. The lessons of conservation and protection are well learned, and presently there will have grown up a strong body of sentiment which will reveal itself in wise laws for the protection of bird and animal life, and in further measures for the conservation of all our national resources. Those who are thoughtful of animals will also tend to respect the feelings and rights of their own kind, so that these studies cannot help but make better men and women.

Only a small amount of time need be devoted to these studies of the natural world, which, as has already been proved by actual test, can be gained through a little economy here and there, without in any way lessening the effectiveness of other branches. Such studies come more as a relaxation than a burden to young minds which naturally delight in outdoor things and are felt to be of inestimable value in creating an attitude of more vital touch and harmony with the natural surroundings of life and a deeper enjoyment and appreciation of the beautiful things of the world in which we live.



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