For the Birds Radio Program: Experiencing Nature in Real Life

Original Air Date: March 10, 2008

Laura was taken to task by listeners who thought it was reasonable that a teacher would answer “I don’t know” when a student asked if a swan was a bird.

Duration: 4′17″


Experiencing nature

A couple of weeks ago, I did a program about how few opportunities there are for even well-educated people to learn about birds in our modern world. I talked about my own ignorance as an adult who had graduated from college with highest honors yet still needed two field guides and a sound recording to identify a common chickadee, and also gave two examples out of many I’ve encountered of people who apparently didn’t realize that gulls or swans belonged to the same classification of animals as robins and other birds.

A couple of people were very upset that I mentioned the case of a small child asking his teacher if swans were birds—the teacher said she wasn’t sure and that they’d look it up when they got back to school. Wesley Thomas Bolton wrote, “Maybe the teacher wanted the student to research the swan his or her self .” Perhaps the teacher really did want the child to look up swans in a book or on the computer when they returned to the classroom. But what is the point of a field trip to a zoo if not to closely observe animals? The moment to actually study a living, breathing swan was right then, while they were standing by the duck pond looking at it. If the teacher really did know the answer, she might have responded, “Let’s look at it and see. Does it have feathers? A beak? Watch it carefully as it swims by—what kind of feet does it have?” Teachers can’t possibly know the answers to every question children ask them. But wise teachers do set an example as informed adults, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to answer “I don’t know” to a fairly simple question if the teacher really does know the answer.

Of course it’s easy to second guess anyone, and a harried teacher leading a big class through a bustling zoo is rather an unfair example. But I’m reading more and more statistics about the huge decline in the number of families and individuals visiting national parks, wildlife refuges, and other natural areas, how the numbers of hunters and anglers is dwindling, how few children are allowed to play outside by themselves to experience and figure out nature even in their own backyards. This isn’t an indictment of individuals—there are just so many things that need to be covered in school and so many funding cuts, and parents and teachers have more fears of danger lurking around every corner nowadays than they did when earlier generations of Americans were growing up, that nature study gets short shrift when students aren’t lucky enough to have a teacher like the extraordinary naturalist Larry Weber to show them the way.

We can learn a lot about birds by reading about them and watching videos. But we can learn a lot more, and take the information more deeply to heart, by actually experiencing natural creatures in the flesh. Being outside in nature, spending time carefully looking at and listening to animals while we’re in their presence is a good thing. As spring approaches, it would be lovely if all of us could take a bit of time occasionally to get outside and watch birds, squirrels, deer, rabbits, frogs, and other critters. We can read about them or watch them on TV anytime. But actually experiencing them—watching firsthand how they move and vocalize and make their way in the world—is both harder to do and infinitely more rewarding.