For the Birds Radio Program: Writing Reports

Original Air Date: Feb. 19, 1996

Today Laura Erickson gives advice to aspiring elementary school writers about making their reports come alive. (3:51) Date verified.

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Last week I went to school at Tower, Minnesota. According to meteorological lore, this Iron Range town is just about the coldest place on the planet, but the school’s warmth transcended the weather.

Usually when I go to schools, I’m supposed to talk about birds, but for once I was talking about something entirely different. February is “I Love to Read Month,” and the school wanted an author to talk about how to write.

When elementary school kids write reports, they usually limit research to encyclopedias, and sentences from any encyclopedia sound pretty dry. We talked about the kinds of things encyclopedias say about birds, and how we could make them more interesting and exciting.

For example, according to the encyclopedia, Turkey Vultures belong to the family Cathartidae, and eat carrion which they find through their sense of smell. Everyone agreed that was dry writing. So we thought about a Turkey Vulture locating dead animals by smell from so far up in the sky. To accomplish this, the odor must be pretty strong. So the dead animals that a vulture finds must not be just merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.

We considered what a Turkey Vulture looks like. Its undersized head is small because it doesn’t need to support a beak heavy enough to rip open a fresh, intact carcass. It’s bald because feathers would get gooped up inside a rotten carcass—this way it just dunks its head in a puddle to get cleaned off. Its nostrils are perforated, so if you look in one side you can see out the other. That’s so if its nose gets gooped up, all it needs to do is shake its head.

Virtually every kid thinks Latin names are boring. I told them to think about the origins of the family name Cathartidae, which comes from the Greek “to purify.” A cathartic cleans out the digestive system. Vultures clean out their digestive system in two ways. When frightened and cornered, rather than attack, they throw up all over their attacker. If their food smelled bad going in, imagine it coming out. And when they’re overheated, they cool off by going to the bathroom on their legs and feet. Now writing a report about vultures had exciting possibilities.

Then we talked about hummingbirds. The encyclopedia says that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds summer in eastern North America and winter in Mexico and Central America. So we looked at a map. It’s a long way from Tower, Minnesota, to Mexico, and baby hummingbirds just hatched that summer must go the distance alone. They move steadily south, stopping to rest or feed, until they reach the Texas coast, where they stop and pig out for days, bulking out until the y almost double their weight. Then they strike out over water, taking the shortest but most dangerous route, flying a minimum of 620 miles over the Gulf of Mexico until they reach the Yucatan Peninsula. And all this takes place during hurricane season! Every hummingbird we see in the spring has done this round trip at least once—that means every hummer is a hero.

Copying anything out of an encyclopedia is tedious work. It’s hard using our brains to figure out how to make that information come alive, but a lot more fun and interesting. “I Love to Read Month” is the right time to practice writing things that others will love to read.