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Ornithology class takes students on statewide field experiences

December 11, 2018

KOKOMO, Ind. –  Bundled up in winter coats and hats, the small group of students watches as a flock of sandhill cranes descend from the sky, extending their long, skinny legs to land in the marshes of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.

In the hour before sunset, more and more of the birds come to roost, taking a break from their migration to rest and refuel. The noise of their rattling calls becomes louder and louder, clearly audible even before they can be seen in Goose Pasture.

“It was pretty loud by the time we reached the observation deck,” said Victoria Brooks, an Indiana University Kokomo student who visited as part of a Principles of Ornithology class.

“It’s an amazing experience to see such large birds, in such large numbers,” the Peru resident said, noting that during the peak of migration, there were about 30,000 sandhill cranes in the northern Indiana fish and wildlife area.

The experience was one of four trips around the state for the class, as part of the IU Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) program, which gives students chances to connect with people and participate in real-world experiences. The goal is for every student to have a travel experience within his or her major.

In addition to observing sandhill crane migration, the ornithology students toured a raptor rehabilitation center in Nashville, assisted in netting and banding saw-whet owls at the Indiana Dunes, and viewed numerous bird species at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.

“You can sit in a classroom and learn about birds, and see them in a book, but it isn’t until you get out and see them firsthand in their habitat that you start to learn more,” said senior Tyler Curnutt, from Tipton. “What you learn in the classroom is reinforced when you’re out in the field like that.”

Lina Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology and anatomy, said students gained a new appreciation of the wildlife in their home state.

“We think there isn’t a lot of wildlife in Indiana, that you have to go far away to see wildlife, but if you start paying attention, the birds are everywhere,” she said. “We have a really large diversity of birds. We need to realize the issues that are affecting these animals, and that our biodiversity needs to be protected for our own good.”

Rifai said they learned that while field work can be exciting, it’s also hard work. For example, saw-whet owls are captured to have identification bands placed on them at night, so they worked in the dark and cold, returning home at about 2:30 in the morning.

“That’s what I wanted to share, that field work is interesting and fun, but it can be exhausting, too,” she said.

Tanner Langley enjoyed seeing what they learned on campus in action.

“It’s important for us to get out in the field,” he said. “That gives us a chance to apply what we’re learning. We’re learning, and then that same week, and sometimes even the same day, could go experience it first-hand. That experience is second-to-none.” 

Jenni Weideman took away a new awareness of how human actions impact wildlife.

“I learned how endangered some of these species are, and about habitat destruction,” said Weideman, from Sharpsville. “There are things we do that negatively affect the birds, and we don’t even realize it. I’m more aware of what I can do to help our environment, for the birds to survive.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 12/11/2018