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Students get slow lesson on bird behavior

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Julie Aarhus and Taushia Hohorst picked a boring goose.

The two fifth-graders from Hunter Elementary School were studying the behavior of a single goose they had selected from the hundreds of birds lounging at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge on Tuesday.

Under the supervision of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Eric Taylor, every 30 seconds the two girls dutifully recorded exactly what the goose was doing.

Hohorst, 10, watched the goose through a pair of binoculars while Aarhus, 11, marked the behavior on a card that listed 14 different kinds of goose behavior.

''What's it doing?'' an anxious Aarhus asked Hohorst, pencil at the ready.

''Standing,'' Hohorst replied as Aarhus put an X next to standing on the card.

''Mark!'' yelled Taylor 30 seconds later.

''What's it doing now?'' Aarhus asked Hohorst.

''Standing,'' Hohorst repeated.

A frustrated Aarhus put another X in the standing column.

''Mark!'' Taylor yelled after another 30 seconds had passed.

''What's he doing?'' Aarhus asked.

''Walking,'' Hohorst replied.

''Finally,'' a relieved Aarhus said, putting an X next to walking.

After 5 1/2 3/8 minutes, they had four x's next to standing, four next to walking and four next to feeding.

''I wanted to see a chase, threaten or attack,'' a disappointed Aarhus said, referring to three other behaviors on the list.

What the two girls did learn when Taylor compiled their results and those of their fellow classmates, however, is that their goose was normal. Feeding ranked No. 1 on the list with 27 x's, followed by walking (18) and standing (15).

''The two most important behaviors for geese are feeding and resting,'' Taylor told the children. ''Could they migrate to Alaska from Oregon on just one meal?

''No,'' the biologist told the kids. ''Creamer's Field is a staging area where birds can come and stop and rest and feed.''

Canada geese aren't the only ones that flock to Creamer's each spring.

Aarhus and Hohorst are among approximately 750 fifth graders from the Fairbanks North Star Borough school district who are touring Creamer's Field this week and next to learn about Alaska's important role in spring migration for waterfowl as part of the 34th annual Fifth-Grade Bird Watch.

They learn that 166 species of birds migrate to Alaska each spring to nest.

They learn that 20 percent of the waterfowl in North America use Alaska's 100 million acres of wetlands for nesting and breeding.

They get to look at birds through binoculars and spotting scopes. They learn they are Canada, not Canadian, geese. They learn how to identify different ducks and geese with the help of stuffed birds set up on a table. Instructors use puppets to illustrate different behaviors.

Creamer's Field provides the perfect classroom, especially on a day like Tuesday. A blue sky served as host for a smattering of puffy, white clouds and the front viewing field was filled with hundreds of honking black and white Canada geese. Two dozen big, ivory-white trumpeter swans mingled with the geese, as did a handful of greater white-fronted geese, a few pintails and an occasional mallard.

''I found one with orange legs and an orange beak,'' Aarhus announced as she looked through a camouflage Bushnell spotting scope, one of about a dozen spotting scopes set up at various heights for the kids.

Instructor Angela Matz asked her what kind of bird it was and Aarhus quickly pulled out her identification book and flipped through it.

''It's a greater white-fronted Canada goose,'' she answered correctly.

While Aarhus liked the white-fronted geese -- ''They're pretty'' -- Hohorst's favorite birds were the giant, white swans that towered over the geese.

''I didn't know swans came up here,'' Hohorst said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Mark Ross, who coordinates the event with a crew of about 40 volunteer instructors, said different kids have different levels of understanding of migration.

''There are some kids that know a few different species and they understand the concept of migration and sometimes they understand the concept of habitat and its components,'' Ross said. ''There are other kids that come in and are ignorant to all the concepts of migration.''

Taylor, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is surprised how much some kids know. One boy had the answer to the question of how geese waterproof their feathers -- they have a gland on their rump that produces oil and they spread it over their feathers with their beak, a practice called preening.

While he didn't know the name of the gland -- the uropygial gland -- that is understandable, especially since Taylor, a Ph.D., wasn't sure how to spell it.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)



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