I taught an ornithology class for a group of seventh graders this afternoon. As I often do, I started out by trying to convey to them that birds are something I’m passionate about, not just something I’m assigned to teach them about. “I own my own binoculars,” I said. “I own about five field guides. I keep a list of the bird species I’ve seen.” As I told them this, one girl in particular – twelve years old going on twenty-one, you know the type – was eyeing me with scorn, like keeping a life bird list made me the weirdest, most uncool person she’d ever met.
After we’d done an activity matching photos of birds’ bills and feet to the behaviors they’re adapted for, I passed out binoculars to each of them and we headed for a nearby pond that’s often a good place to see herons and egrets and ibises, flashy birds that are good for impressing kids. At first it looked like there wasn’t much activity there and I was worried I was going to lose their interest, but then came the anhinga.
It appeared swimming as anhingas often do, with only its head and its impossibly long, slender neck out of the water, like some kind of miniature sea monster. In its beak was a fish, which glinted in the sunlight as it struggled. The bird was making for the bank at top speed. Twelve seventh-graders, two chaperones, and I watched the race: would the anhinga make it to land with its prize before it lost its grip and the fish escaped? Finally the gangly bird reached its goal, hopped up onto a branch, and gulped down its lunch.
Miss twelve-going-on-twenty-one had followed the drama through her binoculars. Now she lowered them and turned to me. “I didn’t get before, why someone would ever want to just stand around looking at birds,” she said. “Now I get it. This is cool.”
So that was my day.