Thursday, October 27, 2011

U of I Department of NRES students get a taste of field work at Allerton

U of I Department of NRES students get a taste of field work at Allerton

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Would you know how to hold a cardinal safely to put a band on its leg? Do you know what to use for bait in a live-trap to catch raccoons or possums? Could you hold up your end of a minnow seine to sample for fish in a shallow river?

These are some of the skills that people who work in natural resources must possess. But they are not things young people typically pick up, either in school or out. And in the past, even students majoring in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) at the UI have been introduced to them only in upper-level courses, fairly late in their time as undergraduates.

Thinking that students would benefit from an earlier introduction to fieldwork, this year NRES professors Courtney Flint and Mark David collaborated to institute a field day as part of the large lecture course that serves as an introduction to the major.

The scene: A crisp October morning at Allerton Park near Monticello. Sixty-five students arrive in small buses. Awaiting them are twelve professors and eighteen graduate students and other student helpers.

As the students split up into smaller groups, I chose one to follow. It included a fairly typical mix of UI undergraduates—the majority of them were from Chicagoland, others were from downstate, and a few were from abroad, China and Malaysia, in this case.

At our first stop, avian ecologist Mike Ward demonstrated how scientists use the recorded call of a screech owl to draw in songbirds; the smaller birds converge to mob the predator and drive it away. Two of them that came in for our call, a white-breasted nuthatch and a cardinal, were caught in a mist net that had been set up nearby for the purpose. Ward and his colleagues used them to show how small birds are handled for scientific study (and then released them, annoyed but unharmed). [Photos by author: Antonio Celis Murillo, a PhD student in NRES, shows undergraduates how to handle a bird; Bob Schooley, professor in NRES, fields a question about the raccoon in the trap; a happy undergraduate transfers a fish from seine to bucket.]

At our next stop, wildlife ecologist Robert Schooley and student Adam Ahlers, explained how live-traps work for catching medium-size mammals, including where to place them and what to bait them with. (Peanut butter and apples work well.) We then checked traps that had been set out the night before, one of which contained a very large, mellow raccoon. There was no “hands on” in this case, given the risks of handling mammals.

Our mammal stop also included an introduction to radio telemetry, which is still widely used for tracking mammals to study their behavior. Ahlers explained it’s much more economical than satellite-based tracking, and can provide more precise data on animal movement. One student from the group then had the opportunity to lead the rest on a successful hunt to find a transmitter the instructors had hidden.

At our last stop of the morning, aquatics, “all in” and “hands on” were the rules, as students put on waders and stepped into the Sangamon River. Some helped collect fish that were stunned by electroshocking, while others worked minnow seines in shallower water. As the students gathered to examine their catch, professor Cory Suski encouraged them: “Don’t be afraid to touch things and pick them up—it’s okay to get your hands dirty!”

After a box lunch on the lawn near the Music Barn, the students spent the afternoon engaged in further hands-on activities. They measured and identified trees in the forest, evaluated water quality at the river and clambered into pits where they learned to “read” a soil profile.

To my way of thinking, there’s just one difficulty with this sort of education, and it affects students and teachers alike--returning to the lecture hall for the next class meeting.