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Natural mentors, continued

Bird calling

Robinson visited Sherman Middle School in April, joining students on their bird walk and helping them identify two species they hadn't previously seen in the park: the yellow-bellied sapsucker (a woodpecker) and the lesser scaup (a diving duck). See a video from Robinson's visit.

Child bird watching
Students identified 100 species in the first-ever
survey of birds in Warner Park. Credit Jim Carrier.

"Just being able to spend some time with these kids is all that it takes," Robinson says, recounting an experience from sixth grade, when a teacher shared with him Jack London's The Call of the Wild.

"It was that one chance encounter - 120 seconds, two minutes - that really changed my life," he adds. The book immediately drew Robinson in, spurring his interest in the outdoors and his dream of becoming a biologist.

Capstone class member Danielle Dovnik, a senior majoring in community and environmental sociology (now graduated), was glad for Robinson's visit.

"John Robinson is a role model who has taken his love of nature all the way in terms of turning it into a career," she says. "Personally, when I was a kid, I didn't know that you could have a job outside, enjoying nature, learning about things ... To be able to show that to kids firsthand - if they really do enjoy this, they could make a living out of it - I think that's a really good thing at this early age."

Home sweet home

For Dovnik, a highlight of the class was coordinating the installation of birdhouses throughout Warner Park. Dovnik had been brainstorming how to help Sherman students "make the park theirs," she says, when she saw a documentary about the use of birdhouses in the conservation of some songbird species.

"Often the college
students rediscover
their own love of
nature through
their bird buddy's
joy and excitement."

"I started thinking, maybe we can do this with the kids," she says. "If they get to have something tangible that they can go back and see, time and time again, and even maybe see a bird pair nesting in there and see the little chicks as they grow up and fledge, what better way to really get the kids involved?"

Dovnik received the approval of Kloppenburg, O'Kane and the Madison Parks Commission, consulted with the Madison Audubon Society to ensure the birdhouses were made in a safe and sustainable way, and then built the houses using recycled soup cans, scrap pieces of wood and segments of used wire coat hangers - a trash-to-treasure style, she says proudly.

Sherman students took it from there, decorating the houses with leaves, bark, sticks and pine cones they gathered from the park. They even got to choose where in the park they'd like the houses to be placed.

"I wanted to have them play as much of a role in this as possible," Dovnik says. "The whole goal was to have them really care about this special place and then maybe start caring for the park as a whole, and then nature."

Environmental studies student installs a birdhouse
Wanting to help Sherman students "make the park
theirs," class member Danielle Dovnik coordinated
the installation of student-decorated birdhouses.

After the birdhouses were installed, students "were so excited to see that they had their birdhouse in the spot that they wanted, decorated with whatever they wanted," she says. "It warms my heart to see that the kids are really starting to get a connection with the park."

The birdhouses will remain through fall, when birds are done nesting, then be removed and stored until spring, when future students can redecorate and re-install them.

The course is being offered again this fall and has been expanded both in size, with nearly triple the number of students participating, and in scope, to take a broader look at the natural world (the course is now called "Last Child in the Park: How Kids and Birds Can Save the Planet").

With word of the class spreading, Hernandez says parents of incoming Sherman students routinely inquire about how to get their children enrolled in the program.

"I really do hope that we're able to maintain this partnership," he says. "It enriches our kids, giving them another opportunity in which they can be introduced to science and to nature."

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