Monday, December 21, 2009

Career Day

Friday I took part in a 7th grade Career Day. It was a large event. There were at least 50 professionals ranging from military and medical to hair stylist, animal rescue and dental hygienist. The afternoon was set up on a 20 minute rotation. I was told to expect no more than 6 kids at a time and I had 20 minutes to discuss what a typical day entailed, schooling involved, salary, as well as likes/dislikes about the job. I had my own classroom, complete with white board, computer and projector.

I was a bit apprehensive about this career day. Usually people's eyes start to glaze over when they ask me "What do you do for a living?" How was I going to make this interesting for a bunch of 7th graders? So I put together a power point presentation of photos of my mistnetting and checking nest boxes. I began telling the kids about my field project and the things they were learning in Science Class (I used the terms Scientific Method, Independent Variable, Dependent Variable, Hypothesis, Habitat, Predator in every talk) were going to stick with them long after school was finished. I showed them the photos and peppered my talk with personal stories and tidbits on bird behavior.

The questions from the kids were what made each presentation interesting and entertaining. I can only hope I was as enlightening and entertaining as they were. Here are the highlights from my afternoon.

What was the funniest thing that happened to you?
I learned the hard way to not just stick your hand in a nestbox without looking first. Once I stuck my hand in a box and when I pulled it out, it was covered in ants. This is my favorite funny story. It's disgusting and I still get the chills when I think about it, but it was funny.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
I went up to Alaska to work one summer. We were camping near a stream in the mountains when we had a bear come into our camp. Another favorite story of mine. I love the reactions I get. There was no real danger here. The bear barely entered our camp perimeter when he saw us, turned tail and ran.

What do you like about your job?
The first thing I love the most is being able to have the birds in my hand to look at them and learn about them. It's neat to see their colors up close. The second thing I love about my job is being outside. I like being able to watch the habitat I'm studying change...the growth of flowers, grasses. It all changes in the spring and summer. Nothing stays the same.

What do you hate about your job?
Doing the math calculations for my reports. There is a lot of math involved.

The discussions on bird behavior and resulting stories were entertaining as well. In one group the topic of aggressive Canada Geese came up. I told them that most geese were aggressive because they were usually defending chicks and sometimes territory. When I advised the kids to simply walk further away when they saw adults with their young offspring, one girl raised her hand and said she had a story. Thinking she was going to talk about young geese, I agreed to let her speak and this is what she said.

This one time, um, I think I was 5, it was winter and I was outside and there were mom geese on one side of a pond and dad geese on the other side of the pond and I fed them and there was a sign that said don't feed the geese, but I couldn't read so I didn't know and then these 10 kids came up and picked me up by my shoulders and threw me in the pond.


In another rotation we were discussing songbirds. I learned that one girl's grandmother had bird feeders out and she "made the nectar juice for the hummingbirds." As soon as she stopped talking another boy piped up that his mom screamed and freaked out when a bird flew in their house.

I think my favorite discussion was on birds not being able to count or smell. We were talking about baby birds in one group when one girl mentioned her family taking care of a baby bird that fell out of its nest.

You know what? Birds can't count and they can't smell. So if you happen to find a baby bird on the ground and there's a nest nearby, you can put the bird in the nest. The bird won't know if she has 4 or 5 babies. She'll take care of it. And it can be a different species too. It's ok to put a robin baby bird in a cardinal's nest.

Wait. But won't the momma bird abandon the nest?

Nope. She can't smell, remember?

But, she's going to know you put it there.

No she won't. She can't smell the scent from your hands.

But how is she going to know that you put it in there?

One boy grew tired of this exchange and said in an exasperated tone: SHE CAN'T SMELL. SHE DOESN'T KNOW!

Then the light bulb went off in the girls head. It was so obvious that I almost expected to hear the click of the switch. Ohhhhh.

I smiled at her and said "The only birds that can smell are turkey vultures. They can smell dead animals and that's important, since that's what they eat."

Can they smell us or other living animals?

Hmm, I don't know. That's a good question actually. I'll have to look that one up and you can as well.

During the last rotation, I found myself in a debate with one boy who was convinced turkeys had their nests up in trees when in fact, turkeys are ground nesters. This went on for about 2 minutes when I found myself saying "Dude, I've been working with birds longer than you've been alive. I know what I'm talking about."

Did I just say THAT?

In any case, it was a fun afternoon and I hope I sparked an interest in some of these kids.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A field of fire

Yesterday I had the opportunity to watch the annual prairie burn at the Ecology Center. The Ecology Center has been managing 12 acres of Tallgrass Prairie since 1989 through planting Mo native grasses and forbs and yearly burns. The prairie is divided up into 3 plots and each plot is burned every other year. Last year the North Prairie was burned and this year the South Prairie was due for its burn. (Next year will be the North and Pasture prairies)

Historically speaking, the Native Americans burned the prairies and woodlands on a regular basis as a way to fireproof their villages, prepare planting sites, control undesirable pests, control movement of game (especially bison), encourage berry production and expose acorns for food collection. This tradition was continued by European Settlers but US gov agencies such as the Forest Service began to discourage the practice in the early 20th century and by the 1950s the custom was extinguished.

The Ecology Center take these burns very seriously and employ a number of safety measures to ensure the success of the fire. All burns are conducted within a "prescription": a set of guidelines for weather and fire safety, taking into account factors such as humidity, temperature, wind speed, and wind direction. The Fire Department is on hand and the Ecology staff and volunteers don water tanks, rakes and flappers to control small fires that may try to burn too close to the predetermined fire breaks. (areas that serve as buffer zones between the burn site and those locations that must not be burned, such as the woodland and nearby homes). A 65 gallon water container follows the Fire Starters in the event the burn gets out of control.

The fire is started with a drip torch, an aluminum canister that holds a 2:1 fuel mixture of diesel and gasoline. The torch slowly drips fire once lit and has 2 safety mechanisms to prevent flashback.

The fire starters wear fire resistant suits made of Nomex or other similar material.

It was a beautiful day for a prairie burn. The sky was clear and there was a gentle breeze. The ground may have been a bit damp from the October rains, but there was enough dried vegetation on the ground to get the fire going.

The grasses (Big Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switchgrass) caught fire quickly and produced the exciting towers of flames but the Cup Plant and Goldenrod plant species appeared to have retained moisture from all the rain and did not easily burn. Ecology Center staff later told me these plant species normally do not burn well.

The tall plants in the middle are Cup Plants.

Fires play an important role in the Prairie ecosystem. Fire cleans and fertilizes. Most prairie plants grow from just below the surface, not from their stems above the ground so a fire will not kill these plants. However burning will clear out those unwanted plant species not adapted for a fire, plants that may have been prohibiting prairie plants from growing on their native grounds. After the growing season, prairie plants store minerals in their stems, leaves and bark. When these plants are burned and reduced to ash, the minerals in the ashes of the plants return to the soil.

The burned, blackened soil is quickly heated up by the sun's rays and stimulates seed germination, sprouting and growth.

Here is a photo of Nestbox #5, taken last summer

And here is Nestbox #5 after the burn

The burn took a little over an hour to complete and the plot will be carefully monitored for the next few days for signs of smoldering flames. In a few months there will be no sign that this burn ever took place.

Let the growing season begin!