Chautauqua’s long-running bird program grabs a national spotlight

Cornell was particularly impressed by the birding program’s use of art to help students learn about birds. Pictured is a belted kingfisher drawn by Jacob White. - Courtesy Photo
Cornell was particularly impressed by the birding program’s use of art to help students learn about birds. Pictured is a belted kingfisher drawn by Jacob White.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Every now and then, retired school teacher Carol Ferch will hear from one of her former students that he or she is still birding, a decade or two after learning about Vashon’s native birds as a student in her fourth-grade classroom.

And every time she gets such a comment, she said, she feels a wave of pride about a program she and several other Islanders helped to establish 20 years ago.

Now, those involved with Vashon’s much-celebrated fourth-grade bird program have another feather in their cap: Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab, arguably the leading center for bird research in North America, has spotlighted the Chautauqua Elementary School program on its “Celebrate Urban Birds” website.

“It’s just so exciting,” Ferch said of the recognition. “After I retired, … people just stepped up to the plate and made it last this long. …. I hope it keeps going forever.”

Cornell selected Vashon’s long-running program after hearing about it from Rose Belknap, a Vashon artist who sent a packet of information about the Chautauqua program to the university earlier this year.

Belknap, who has gotten grants from Vashon Allied Arts’ Artists-in-the-Schools program to work with Chautauqua students for the last several years, sees the birding program as a way to explore not only biology and ecology but also art: She has each student sketch the birds they’re studying, culminating in detailed, full-color renditions that earlier this year formed the basis of an art show at Wings Birdseed Co.

It was that combination of art and science that wowed the woman who runs Cornell’s Celebrate Urban Birds program.

“I was very impressed with the collaboration,” said Karen Purcell, project leader for Celebrate Urban Birds.

She was struck by the breadth and depth of the program as well as its use of art to deepen students’ awareness of birds, she said. Integrating arts into a science study, she said, “is something I’ve seen over the years as an unbelievably strong way to reach all students, to reach as many students as possible.”

“There are other programs that utilize the arts,” she added. “This is the only one I’ve seen that does it to this degree and makes such a commitment.”

Ferch started the program when she was teaching at Vashon Elementary School, which no longer exists on the Island. She was encouraged by Susie Kalhorn, an Islander and environmental educator who secured a Partners in Education (PIE) grant to launch the program; Ferch’s husband, well-known birder Dan Willsie, helped as well, selecting the books they should buy to support the students’ education.

Others also played a role in those early years, Ferch recalled, including UMO, which used drama and sculpture to enrich the fledgling program, and the Vashon Park District, which gave it a grant.

Eventually, Vashon’s small but thriving Audubon chapter stepped in and began facilitating the program, said Kathryn True, the chapter’s former education chair who oversaw the fourth-grade bird program for several years.

Over the years, the program has grown increasingly robust. These days, it’s a multi-week program that includes five separate sessions — starting with a PowerPoint presentation by Auduboner Richard Rogers and culminating in a field trip to KVI Beach, where kids use binoculars and scopes to identify the rafts of birds often found there. The program also includes a visit by Islander Gary Shugart, collections manager at the Slater Museum of Natural History in Tacoma, who brings in “skins,” birds unintentionally killed and given a kind of second life as stuffed teaching tools, which the students can gently handle.

The students learn how to use binoculars and field guides during the course of the program. They learn about the habitat needs of various species. And eventually Belknap comes in, working with kids on how to sketch what it is they’re seeing.

Fourth-grade teacher Jan Smith, who has worked closely with Belknap over the years, said the integration of arts into the program has been most rewarding to her.

“It’s the part I look forward to the most,” she said. “The kids love it.”

Adding to the program’s richness, Audubon has begun scanning the children’s artwork, turning them into high-quality cards that are offered to the public for sale. The proceeds are turned back into the program.

At a time when funding for arts in public schools is being cut, both Belknap and Smith find Cornell’s recognition especially gratifying.

“If you bring art and science into the classroom, for some reason it creates a deeper, more profound experience for children,” Belknap said. “I’ve seen it. I believe it. These kids know their birds.”


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