A note from Erik- Stories are a great way to learn and communicate. The story you are about to read is one I will remember for the rest of my life. It illustrates the reason I teach and the reason I love what I do.
Coopers Hawk Speaks
There are certain moments in teaching, especially teaching outdoors, that I live for. One of which happened in Felton California while I was teaching a group of 7-13 year olds. Throughout the week I had been hinting and pointing out the birds and their behaviors to the students. The birds are a very important key to knowing what is going on around you. Early in the week I had told the students that birds are always in survival mode and do everything with a purpose. They did not seem to appreciate birds the way I did. But that was okay, it had taken me a while to appreciate them.
Wednesday of that week I woke up early and sat on a log between the field and the woods. There was a field and a small organic farm surrounded by redwoods. A fence divided the field about 100 yards in front of me and I was facing West. Around 8AM the students started showing up. The first two to arrive were brothers. One was seven and one was nine. The nine year old was the youngest minded of the siblings and the seven year old often proved to be much more reliable and respectful. The nine year old was walking and talking loudly so I knew they were coming. As soon as they walked through the gate and saw me sitting quietly with more than fifty birds at my feet the younger brother shushed the older brother because he had been curious about bird language. That right there is score one for an outdoor educator. Just having two young students learn to mechanically change their behavior to be respectful of birds is an amazing thing.
They came and sat next to me and we enjoyed the baseline of the birds feeding for a good seven minutes before more kids started showing up. Each time they came through the gate and saw kids sitting on a log quietly they all ended up quieting down, walking slower and joining us on the log. Eventually by around 8:45AM I had twenty some aught kids sitting still and silent with me on the log. I look around and all I can think is “score two for the instructor”.
Then the most amazing thing happened; one of the students got my attention and pointed out a robin on the fence facing West with its back towards the feeding birds. Score 3! The students were recognizing bird behavior. Quietly I asked them what they thought it was doing. They said it saw a predator like a bear, mountain lion or a human. I thought the human could probably be right but I had my doubts on a lion or bear. A minute later we hear what I know to be a scrub jay alarm coming from mid canopy of the redwoods on the West side of the field. The kids recognize it as an alarm. Point 4 for the instructor. I ask them what they think it was yelling about and I get answers like pterodactyl, bald eagle, and hawk. “So an aerial predator?” I ask them and they nod.
At this point I have a fairly good idea what is coming but I could never have predicted how spectacularly it would happen. Another minute after the jay alarm and all at once every bird at our feet evacuate the immediate area with a resounding THUMP that myself and every student feels in their chest. The birds fly South into the woods and as the students eye’s follow them I say “No look that way!” and point North. Right as they turn their heads a coopers hawk banks spitting distance right in front of the log about six feet of the ground catching a Junco in its talons right in front of the students. Being one of the stealthiest and most agile aerial hunters Coopers Hawks are rarely seen by people.
I could not have hoped for such a good teaching moment. Immediately the students started shouting and yelling how cool it was. There were a lot of dropped jaws and a lot of did you see that’s going around. I just kind of sat there in gratitude because those are the moments I live for. Moments where students can experience nature up close, moments where their awareness is changed forever. And indeed it was throughout the whole rest of the week each and every student was actively changing their behavior to respect the bird’s boundaries and walking more quiet-minded than at the begging of the week. We ended up seeing a lot more wildlife too.