Study of birds takes flight at Penn

Students in Mike McGraw’s course spend time learning cold, hard facts in the classroom. But they also spend time in less traditional settings.

“In Cape May, we all hunkered down into a bird blind and watched as biologists used live lures to ‘fish’ for raptors in the sky,” says McGraw. “We saw a merlin come flying in at 100 miles an hour, thinking it’s about to grab a starling, and crash into a mist net to be captured and studied.”

These in-the-field experiences are a core component of “Ornithology,” a course McGraw is teaching for the first time this semester in the Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies. In his day job, McGraw is a wildlife biologist with Applied Ecological Services. Until this past spring, he was a student in the MES program, a degree he pursued in some measure “to be part of Penn’s great network of professionals.” Now an alumnus, the student has become the teacher.

The course is designed to offer students a rigorous education in the evolutionary history, taxonomy, anatomy, physiology, and ecology of birds.

“What makes birds so fascinating is their incredible diversity,” McGraw says. “There are more than 10,000 bird species that we know of, so there are lots of opportunities to talk about their different adaptions.”

By the time students finish the semester, McGraw will expect them to know, among other things, how to identify a minimum of 50 bird species by sight and by song.

“We live fully immersed in a bird-inhabited landscape,” he says. “Rarely do you not hear some bird species when you crack open your window. I want students to really become knowledgeable about their local avifauna.”

The course’s five field trips, which take students as near as Philadelphia’s John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and as far as Albany, N.Y.’s Pine Bush Preserve to observe birds in the wild, are where, as McGraw describes it, “the rubber hits the road.”

“When you get in the field and get your hands on a bird, it can really be a life-changing experience,” he says. “I’m hoping that the field experiences become the glue of the course, cementing the students’ connection to these animals.”

For Caitlin Welsh, an MES student who is concentrating in environmental education, the course has given her access to field experiences with birds—as well as with scientists and educators—that she hopes to leverage in the future.

“In teaching elementary kids about science and the environment, there are a lot of concepts that are hard to get across without having something tangible and accessible for them to connect with,” she says. “If you can demystify birds and use them as a link, it can make those broad, abstract ideas a lot more concrete.”