Bird Study – Teaching Bird Study

A LITTLE after six o’clock one July morning on the campus of the University of Tennessee, I stood near the center of a semi-circle of twenty-five school teachers whose expressions indicated a high state of excitement, and whose fifty eyes were riveted on a scene of slaughter but a few feet from them. For five minutes we had scarcely moved. During this time the lives of thirty-two specimens of animal life had been blotted out. The perpetrator of this holocaust was a creature known to scientists as Spizella socialis called by ordinary people Chipping Sparrow. Its victims were small insects which but a moment before were disporting themselves on the grass.

Preparation of Teachers.—One teacher expressed surprise that a bird could find so many of these choice morsels in so short a time. She had never imagined that so many insects inhabited so small an area as that to which the bird had confined its operations. “Very well,” said the instructor, “suppose all of you get down and see how many insects you can find in five minutes.” So while he held the watch all proceeded to take part in a bug-hunting contest. In this novel undertaking even the women of the class displayed great zeal. When time was called it was found that one student had a credit of fourteen, an-other sixteen, a third nineteen, and one tall young woman with glasses exhibited twenty-one insects in the folds of her handkerchief.

A stranger watching the actions of this band of eager, early-rising teachers might have been puzzled to determine what induced them to assemble at this hour of the day for the evident purpose of watching the habits and activities of small birds that the ordinary person passes without notice. They were, nevertheless, occupied in one of the most valuable studies that could have claimed their attention.

For many years the United States Department of Agriculture has been employing trained naturalists to give their time to the investigation of the damage done to growing crops by the insect hosts that infest fields and forests. These and other experts have come forward with astounding statements regarding the destructiveness of birds to insects. We are told, too, that each bird is virtually a living dynamo of energy; that its heart beats twice as fast as the human heart; and that the normal temperature of its blood registers over a hundred degrees. It is a simple fact of biology, therefore, that a tremendous amount of nourishing food is necessary for the bird’s existence. Vast quantities of insects are needed for this purpose.

Some time ago a New England gentleman became so impressed by the frequency with which a pair of Robins visited their nest with food for the young that he determined to learn more about the food-consuming possibilities of the four nestlings. The day the offspring left their cradle he temporarily took possession of them. With the aid of some friends, who kindly undertook to dig fishworms for him, he proceeded to give the baby Robins all they cared to eat between daylight and dark. He found to his very great surprise that these small birds consumed in one day food to the amount of their own weight and 56 per cent. additional. If an average-sized man were to eat at this rate he would require seventy pounds of beef and several gallons of water daily. Upon reaching maturity the Robins probably do not eat so greedily, but the incident serves to illustrate their capacity in the days of youth.

The school teachers at the Knoxville Summer School who watched the Chipping Sparrow that morning were members of a group of earnest men and women whose lives were dedicated to the training of children. For nine months they had been in the classroom, meeting heroically the petty trials and annoyances incident to their life work. Now, instead of spending their brief vacation in idleness, they were seeking additional knowledge to prepare them for more valuable future service. They were learning that morning the important lesson that birds are placed on earth for a useful purpose. When they returned to the schoolroom they would teach the boys that the bird is a friend to the farmer and should not be killed not its nest destroyed. They would teach girls that there is something far more exquisite about the living bird than is to be found in the faded lustre of its feathers when sewed on a hat, and they would cultivate in the heart of the girls a feeling of sympathy for the home life of the birds about them.

The greatest problem to be solved by those actively engaged in measures which make for civic righteousness is how to preserve the children of the country from evil influences, and to direct their curiosity and restless energy into safe and productive channels. The teacher occupies a strategic position in this matter, and one of her problems is how to engage the interest of the child in subjects that are both entertaining and beneficial. Simple lessons in nature study are an excellent method by which to accomplish this end, and a study of out-of-door life should begin with birds.