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Celebrate Urban Birds/Project Pigeon Watch

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Emilio De Torre

What a creative and open-ended science curriculum! Easy to understand and implement, this is a fantastic way to explore ornithology with your young people or on your own. It requires very little set up time and little to no cost. Clear, concise directions; engaging explanations; sharp and detailed video, audio and photos all reinforce this fun site. The activities are further bolstered by informing the participants that they are part of an international research group whose findings (yes, your findings) are necessary to solve riddles in the scientific community. Most of the language and concepts are easily accessible for participants in fourth grade on through adulthood. There are easy to reach glossaries and resources and references galore. The various "out of the room" activities can be done as field trips or quick expeditions to the environs just outside your door. New concepts are clearly detailed and incorporated into activities whose significance/relevance is explained. Additionally, there are many areas where "teachable moments" can be exploited and linked to other activities such as arts and crafts, digital media and expository writing.
Full Review:
"Citizens helping scientists answer questions about birds in cities": the motto for Celebrate Urban Birds says it all. This Web-based curricular initiative is a well-designed ornithology site whose bright visual layout is simple and fun to navigate. There are many ”out of the room” activities, informational passages, and obscure tidbits about our feathered friends. Best of all, the site and activities are in both English and Spanish. With the click of a button, Spanish-speakers are transported to a site that is identical to the English. Wow!

Although the background information and instructions are online, the activities call for young people to get outside with tally-sheets and journals in hand, and explore the world of birds.

The Web site itself is logically organized and lets students, club members, individuals, or interested parents choose any of at least thirty birds to research and five projects to join. The site contains decent photos of the birds (although not all can be printed in a large size), short videos, wav/audio files of the birds' calls, and maps detailing their range and habitat—all with great eye appeal.

There are many things to explore and do using Celebrate Urban Birds. Afterschool instructors will quickly learn to navigate the site and use the basic activities. There are easy links to additional parent and instructor resources as well.

Each of the approximately thirty birds is relatively common; there are probably a few indigenous to each birdwatcher's community. The researchers have divided the birds into six families—finches and sparrows; starlings and grackles; hawks and falcons; crows, ravens, magpies and jays; doves and pigeons; and gulls. Each of these sections is then subdivided into the different birds.

If participants have an interest in rock pigeons, for example, they can click on a link and it will take them to a page with photos, sound bites, and basic information.

Visitors can either explore the bird's entire page or click on an individual link to go directly to information about habitat, behavior, and so forth. Each page has clearly labeled tabs for instant access to a glossary, the rest of the bird guide, and other features, resources, and projects that will get participants out of the classroom and into the world.

The five research projects are intriguing. If a young person clicks on the project called Pigeon Watch, for example, they are transported to a new page that explains what the project is, why it's "cool," and how they can get involved. Pigeon Watch is focused around questions such as "Why do city pigeons exist in so many colors?" and "What color mate does a pigeon choose?"

Youth learn that they are helping scientists solve these riddles, so the information they collect will be used to expand a body of scientific knowledge. This co-inquiry method helps reduce the instructor's need to know everything, and further excites the young folks by giving them a sense of purpose and adventure in their pursuits.

Pigeon Watch is only one of several international research projects that involve people of all ages and locations in a real scientific endeavor, combining hands-on science with neighborhood-based education. Although this can be as easy as observing pigeons along a city street (and recording what you see), the data are crucial for scientific research, and Pigeon Watchers learn about birds as well as about the scientific process and the work of scientists today.

The program's sense of global camaraderie will inspire your students and make learning exciting—usually a tough sell in the afterschool environment. Your team can submit their work, questions, photos, and findings to the Web site and proudly see where your research and questions are viewed by others.

The youth are encouraged to join the program by filling out a registration sheet that is then sent electronically to the Cornell University Lab of Orinthology. Participation is free and the Celebrate Urban Birds materials and resources are easily downloaded or can be mailed. You can also order (with a cost) additional videos and books. The bottom of each page does ask the user for monetary contributions, and the site does not say what is done with the participant's records or explain any confidentiality code.