4-H youth learning to love nature

Jan 15, 2015

Youth in California will know the thrill of the find as they search out and observe birds in their own communities. The children will be taking part in the UC Cooperative Extension 4-H program's pilot study of new birding curriculum developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Cornell has long offered “Bird Sleuth” materials for use in schools. Now they have branched out to informal educational settings by writing two new curricula, “Habitat Connections” and “Nature Detectives,” which are being pilot-tested in California, New York and Illinois.

Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty, 4-H Youth Development advisor in San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, will lead a group of 16 4-H members from Hollister in seven Nature Detectives meetings beginning this month at the 8,000-acre Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area.

“We'll be getting kids to start observing things in nature, making a record and sharing their data with the repository at the Lab of Ornithology,” Schmitt-McQuitty said. “As we go through the monthly meetings, we'll keep a running total of the species we see.”

The classes aren't just about spotting birds and identifying them. The curriculum weaves in a greater understanding of science and environment with sessions on habitat, the food web and bird survival. Each meeting begins with an optional one-hour bird hike, adding outdoor exercise and nature observation to the science activities.

Over the course of the program, the children will identify a habitat need for wildlife at Hollister Hills. At the final class, they will be out in the field addressing the need by placing nesting boxes, planting native plants, removing invasive species or some other habitat improvement.

Other California counties involved in the pilot study are Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, San Diego and Orange. Cornell received a grant from the Noyce Foundation to create and test the curriculum. Representatives from the Ithaca, N.Y., school traveled to California to offer train-the-trainer instruction to 4-H advisors, program representatives and volunteer project leaders.

The curriculum comes in two versions: Nature Detectives, the one to be implemented by Schmitt-McQuitty in San Benito County, and Habitat Connections, which is adapted for afterschool programs.

4-H community educator in Orange County, Jason Suppes, will coordinate the pilot study of Habitat Connections in an Anaheim affordable housing development, Pradera Apartment Homes. Unlike Nature Detectives, in which each monthly class builds on previous lessons, Habitat Connections lessons stand on their own. The format is ideal for the Pradera program, which doesn't attract all the same children to each meeting.

When the program begins in spring 2015, Suppes said he will place bird baths and bird feeders in common areas near the Pradera recreation facility. The children will be able to observe birds, talk and play without disturbing the birds' feeding or bathing. At each meeting, the birdwatching and identification will be supplemented with a lesson in natural science. In addition, Suppes is planning a field trip to an off-site wild area to give the children another nature observation experience.

“I don't expect the kids to all become avid birdwatchers, but I'll be pleased if they are able to identify one or two birds in their community,” Suppes said. “They'll get a greater sense about the environment where they live and what they can do to have an impact on the environment.”

The majority Pradera residents are of Latino descent, and most have had few opportunities to learn about nature. Because of the shifting demographics in California to a population with Latinos representing the largest segment, the stewardship of the state's open spaces and public lands could be passed to people who haven't had access or developed an interest.

“Some of these kids never leave their city block,” Suppes said. “Everywhere in the county, we're within 15 miles of the mountains or the ocean. The majority have never seen either one. In 4-H, we're shaping a new generation of land stewards.”

An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Stratetic Vision 2025.

By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist