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Courses That Change Your Life: Field Ecology of Birds (Biol 305)

Posted by Paul Wiemerslage | Feb 02, 2015

With every return of spring, no animals are more visible, more vocal or more demonstrative than birds. Yet their very abundance and complexity can make their identification and observation seem an overwhelmingly complex task. But a well-trained observer can not only distinguish birds by sight, but also by song, as well as relate the presence of different birds to different habitats, vegetation types and key natural resources. Such skills open a world of wonder and pleasure to nature that many people have never known – until they take Field Ecology of Birds with Ken Petersen of Bethel University. A widely respected ornithologist, Ken’s research has been published in the leading bird journals in science, including Auk, Condor, Journal of Field Ornithology and Wilson Bulletin, and he is one of the nation’s leading experts on the ecology of Brewer’s sparrow, a sagebrush-dependent species that has suffered declines in some parts of the US intermountain west under programs converting sagebrush to grassland or other habitats. This depth and combination of skill, scholarship and scientific expertise is deeply valued by his students. As one member of Ken’s 2013 class noted at the end of the course, “I loved learning about birds, I have always been interested in them and to learn at the extent that I did was fantastic. [Ken Petersen was] by far the best instructor I have ever had.”

Students note that Ken and his subject come together powerfully in this course experience. As one former student remarked, “Being able to see the birds in the field that we're learning about in the classroom was great. It made it easier to remember the bird class and behavior of the bird. The examples that Dr. Petersen included in the lectures helped reinforce the ideas he taught. The facts, past experiments with birds, his personal experience studying birds, and other facts about ecology all contributed to the meaning of the course.” These experiences are available each and every May at Au Sable’s Great Lakes Campus, an opportunity to study some of nature’s most beautiful and interesting creatures from an accomplished scientist and teacher who knows them well.

Field Ecology of Birds brings more than personal satisfaction and enjoyment in nature. Individuals who possess skills in identifying birds by sight and song are among the people most in demand as interpreters and environmental educators. In the field of environmental consulting, government agencies and, in some cases, industries use the presence of specific bird species or species groups as indicators of environmental quality, or as indicators of the effects of environmental change. People with skills in bird identification are the ones hired to carry out and complete such surveys that consulting companies contract to provide. In-depth study of one major vertebrate group, like birds, is also excellent preparation for graduate education and training, where one is often thrown into courses with greater depth and focused attention on a single group of organisms. Field Ecology of Birds provides opportunity for students to study one vertebrate group in an immersive field experience for three weeks, and it just happens to be a group that is among the most colorful, active and interesting in the natural world.