Scientific Method Outdoors: Grackle Edition

Today and  yesterday, fifty-three third-graders came to the Environmental Interpretive Center for a Scientific Method Outdoors program. It was great! Here’s the general break down of how the program went down this week —

Day 1:

  1. Program Intro — What is the scientific method, and how we can use it to answer questions?
  2. Exploratory Nature Walk — one hour of immersion in the natural world
  3. Lunch
  4. Questionnaires (“What are your top 3 plants/animals of interest?”)
  5. The leaders (us) deftly sorted the kids into groups based on interest. There were five groups total:
    • Squirrels, chipmunks, and small mammals group
    • Decomposers, earthworms, slugs, and fungus group
    • Plants/Seeds group
    • Blister Beetles group
    • Birds group
  6. We broke out into groups, agreed on a specific plant or animal to study, and made a list of possible research questions about that species
  7. Their assignment: return the next day with some basic research about that species (where it lives, what it eats, how it looks, etc.)
Of course, I got the bird group… Lucky me! We went into the quiet room to deliberate on what species we wanted to focus on. They were dead set on studying ducks… until some cool, shiny, bluish-headed blackbirds descended on the feeders outside. Ducks were out, and this new, cool bird was in. The only thing was, they had no idea what it was. So I told them — this charming, gaminesque bird was nothing else but a GRACKLE!

..Now, the grackle is one of my favorite birds. You’ll find them traveling through the forest in large flocks just as the weather crisps (in October and November); they’ll stage in large trees, often in the company of other blackbirds (like the Red-winged Blackbird). They’re generalist seed-eaters, consuming everything from corn to acorns. They make great noises (chek, chek, reeedleEEEK — like a squeaking door) which can become deafeningly loud when there are a hundreds gathered together in a tree.

..A grackle was also the first kind of (non-waterfowl) bird that I ever banded. Here’s a pic of the very grackle that had to endure my amateur touch:

Chek, chek, meh.

So… we picked the Common Grackle as our species-of-interest. They came back this morning with some bird field guides, and some print-outs of Grackle facts.

Day 2: Grackle Day
  1. Review the questions we had about grackles
  2. Picked ONE question to research
  3. Generated a testable statement (“hypothesis”), method, and a data table
  4. Observe/Collect data
  5. Assemble a research poster

..I couldn’t have been happier with my group. Some sample questions we asked were: What do they eat? How high do they fly? Where do they live? What do their eggs look like? Do females/males look the same? How hard do they peck? How sharp are their talons? Who do they spend time with?

..We picked through our questions, asking which ones we could answer in the field, and which we couldn’t. We joked heartily about the tools we’d need to test some of our questions — such as a policeman’s speed gun to clock a grackle’s flight speed, or a giant ruler to measure flight height…

.Our final research question was: Where do grackles like to spend the most time — in the forest canopy, understory, or on the ground? We took a vote — most of my kids hypothesized that grackles would spent the most time in the understory.

.Okay, good — but how would we test it?

.Luckily, it was easy for them to devise a method. They created a simple data table with three categories (canopy, understory, and forest floor) that we would take long with us on a walk; we would count any grackles we saw and tally them in the appropriate category.

.Before going out, we also took some time to listen to Grackle Calls on All About Birds, just so we could also ID them by ear… just in case we couldn’t see them.

.… Did it work out? Yes — sort of. In one hour and fifteen minutes, our group saw a total of four (FOUR!!) grackles, as opposed to the dozens they had seen the day before. The kids did not lose heart, though — we had talked about it earlier (Will you be sad if we don’t se any? NO!) and how zero means a lot!

.Anyway, we took our walk, saw four grackles (as well as one wood duck, two raccoons in the Cottonwood tree,  three Red-winged blackbirds, two soaring hawks, a school of fish… we should have made a song about what we saw, a la Twelve Days of Christmas) and added them to our data table. FYI, we saw two in the canopy, and two in the forest floor.

.We came back and debriefed. We decided that our results were inconclusive — we agreed that we didn’t have enough data to answer our question. We did have lots of new questions, though — Where did the grackles go? Why aren’t they here? Did they migrate? Was there not enough food here? Did we scare them?  We made notes of all those things.

.Next, came another fun part — making the poster! Because of the time crunch, we only had about 15 minutes to put it together. They seemed to have a lot of fun; each student was happy to take on a different part. Here’s the final product! I’m so proud! Great job, grackle group!


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