Celebrating and Advancing the Year of the Bird with Geo-Inquiry

By Alex Oberle

The feathery smudge was an epitaph inscribed on a high window of an Iowa home, a sad homage to a migration that came to a sudden and final end.

Was the smudge left by an ovenbird, already 700 miles of flight but one unyielding window short of the dense woods of central Ontario?

Or was the smudge left by a black-and-white warbler, perhaps no more than 90 miles into its migration from Wisconsin to what should have been the tropics of Central America?

Regardless of the species or number of miles travelled, the shadowy imprint left two figures in my mind: 100 and hundreds of millions.

We all have a part to play in honoring the century of accomplishments brought by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and we all must recognize the stark reality of continued, preventable, bird mortality.

An Ideal Subject for the Geo-Inquiry Process

No group has a more critical role to play than today’s middle-school students. Through the National Geographic Learning Framework and Geo-Inquiry Process, these students are ideally positioned to identify, address, and take action on exactly this type of problem.

The Geo-Inquiry Process engages students in tackling community issues that have broader regional or global connections. The Geo-Inquiry Process begins with a student-driven question and ends with students taking action on a solution to that question. In between these key starting and ending points, the five-phase process includes data collection, data visualization, and creatively and compellingly communicating a solution based on research.

The problem of preventing and reducing migratory bird mortality is ideal for the Geo-Inquiry Process. Windows are everywhere. So many students have had the experience of being startled by the thud of a bird hitting glass, gripped by the life-and-death question of whether the bird survived, and if so, what can be done to help the bird recover and be on its way. Solutions are practical and cost-effective, whether altering the reflectivity of windows or turning off building lights at night. Few topics are as accessible, relatable, and compelling as this one.

There is, of course, much more for students to learn, such as what birds live in their community year-round versus those that migrate through in spring and fall. Of those species that migrate, where are they traveling from and where are they traveling to? Which species migrate in which weeks and at what times of day? Which birds are particularly vulnerable to windows and other obstruction hazards in the community? What is being done—or perhaps not being done—up and down the migration flyway to reduce hazards for a particular species? Is the mortality from migration compounding other threats like habitat loss or climate change?

Map by National Geographic

A Conversation with Kristen Ruegg

Students who pursue this Geo-Inquiry project have wonderful partners available to them, including National Geographic Explorer Dr. Kristen Ruegg, who led a National Geographic Explorer Classroom earlier this year and is co-director of the Bird Genoscape Project which uses genomics to identify and research the migratory routes of birds across the Western Hemisphere. Ruegg and her colleagues’ work greatly supports migratory birds by better monitoring declining populations to inform conservation strategies.

Image courtesy Bird Genoscape Project

Recently, Ruegg and I discussed Geo-Inquiry in the context of how it would have resonated for her when she was a middle-school student, how it will positively shape future colleagues, and its eventual impact on the many non-scientists she works with in support of bird conservation.

In thinking back to her middle-school years, Ruegg relates that “one of the most compelling aspects [of the Geo-Inquiry Process] would have been to be able to ask a meaningful question that had an importance beyond the classroom: the idea that a student could ask a question related to their own local surroundings and have meaning in the community and well beyond.”

Anticipating that many of today’s middle-school students will soon be scientists in the field, Ruegg highlights the critical importance of collaboration: “Geo-Inquiry will teach future colleagues a key lesson early on in middle school, something scholars and scientists know well once they are in their discipline—that science can’t be done in isolation. Breakthroughs happen when people come together and that contributions to knowledge now go way beyond one person, often thousands of people coming together.”

With citizen science efforts being a key part of the Bird Genoscape Project and conservation in general, Ruegg is confident that Geo-Inquiry projects in middle school will ultimately increase participation in conservation organizations like the Audubon Society, BirdLife, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or Hawkwatch, especially for those who choose a career outside of conservation.

Kristen Ruegg’s Bird Genoscape Project not only serves as a resource for connecting students’ local bird migration sightings with regional patterns and research, but also offers students an opportunity to collaborate with more than two dozen organizations.

Universities serve as research partners, and can also work with students on outreach. At my university, the University of Northern Iowa, our geography student organization is tackling bird mortality on campus with a service learning project that has the support of our Director of Sustainability—a project that could easily be extended through partnerships with middle schools in the community.

Other partner organizations include the Audubon Society, Peregrine Fund, and similar groups that work towards bird conservation. “Lights Out” programs operate locally to encourage a reduction in nighttime building lights during migration, a common cause of bird mortality.

This is the ideal year to address obstacles to bird migration—2018 is the commemoration of the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and thus Year of the Bird, an official designation from National Geographic, the Audubon Society, BirdLife, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The MBTA, one of the oldest wildlife protection laws, prohibits all variety of activities that had previously devastated migratory bird populations such as killing, capturing, collecting, selling, and transporting. Yet this longstanding legislation has had to evolve to address the threats of today, “incidental takes” like power line electrocutions or deadly contamination due to birds landing in uncovered oil waste pits.

Reducing bird mortality due to windows is one of the key actions that we can take to contribute to the greater good accomplished through the MBTA. In fact, the Year of the Bird call to action for September includes addressing window reflectivity, going “lights out”, and continuing advocacy.

Imagining the Impact

Envision the collective impact of Geo-Inquiry on migrating birds: middle-school students across the continent advocating for simple changes like applying special tape to a school’s windows or championing community strategies for “Lights Out” initiatives.

Think of the rich geographic and scientific data available to students through the Bird Genoscape Project and of enlisting the support of local science museums, Audubon Society chapters, and universities.

Imagine being a 7th-grader in Iowa looking up into the autumn night sky, knowing that birds migrating from Ontario to the Bahamas have an unimpeded flyway thanks to you and middle-school students across North America.

Alex Oberle is a 2018 National Geographic Education Fellow and a professor of geography at the University of Northern Iowa.

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