"Early birds" with educator Janet Vigeland

“We’re All About the Birds”

We’ve had many Pennington Habitat Heroes share their stories on our BirdSleuth Action Map. Ms. Vigeland’s class is one that went above and beyond for the birds in their neighborhood. We hope you find inspiration from these young scientists and encourage others to follow their lead!

7:15 a.m.  Friday morning and the ‘early birds’ have arrived. Eager students don their binoculars for Ms. Janet Vigeland’s bird-watching class. Ranging from 4th to 8th grade, these students gather every week to watch birds outside of Hilltop Country Day School, filling in their eBird life-lists with species they identify.

“I started early birds because my former and current students just couldn’t get enough of bird watching,” Ms. Vigeland says. “My students’ observational skills have grown so much since September. Now they look for beak color, field marks, and size.”

Janet Vigeland and her class are frequent contributors to Action Map, an interactive website hosted by BirdSleuth K-12 at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. On this site, classes can submit their stories about their local environmental stewardship efforts.

This bird craze at Hilltop School began with a garden. Hilltop has a beautiful campus in Sussex County, New Jersey. Many of the classrooms have large windows and sliding glass doors. Down the hill is a large garden complete with a small pond, pollinator beds, and bird bath. “I was very lucky to get permission from the headmaster and lucky to have a great group of parents that year who donated the plants, shrubs, and bird bath.”

This garden is now certified as a butterfly habitat and NJ WILD school site. Each year Ms. Vigeland’s fourth graders do some type of garden enhancement for Earth Day. “We are trying to create the best bird habitat that we can so as to use it as a teaching tool for environmental education and conservation.”

The original feeders lacked cover for birds.

The original feeders lacked cover for birds.

Part of this initiative involved putting up feeders outside their classrooms to encourage the students to watch birds. Ms. Vigeland’s 3rd grade class put several up outside their classroom window, however after two weeks, the students noticed that no birds had visited their feeders. Puzzled, they began to think about why this might be.

Did the birds not like the seed provided? Was it too hot by the window for birds to be comfortable? Was the lack of water discouraging birds?

Someone finally suggested that the area looked sad.

This idea stuck and the class embarked on a journey to test it. They decided that the area needed some attention, specifically more plants and a water source to encourage more birds to visit.

Artwork created when planning their feeder garden.

Artwork created when planning their feeder garden.

“I decided to have the kids problem solve when they didn’t get any birds to the feeders,” says Ms. Vigeland. “That became the basis for my submission [to the Action Map].”

First, her students put their heads together to design an ideal bird feeding area. They drew the resources they thought birds would need to survive; food, places for cover, and a plethora of water sources, were included to make the area more attractive to birds.

Using their observation skills, the students noticed the area in which they had put up feeders was under an overhang, causing the garden beds to receive very little water. The class had planned to use the beds to grow shrubs and other plants that would provide the cover birds look for near feeders, but now saw that the area wasn’t ready to support plant life. Realizing improvements were necessary, Ms. Vigeland and her class worked to improve the soil quality using cardboard pizza boxes and mulch.

“The pizza box idea came from a workshop two of my fellow colleagues and I attended down in Cape May with a wonderful lady named Pat Sutton. She said an easy way to get rid of grass, when making a new garden, was to put down cardboard and cover it with grass clippings and forget about it for awhile. The cardboard will break down over time and kill the grass. So I got the idea one day, during pizza Wednesday at school when I saw all the empty pizza boxes stacked for recycling.” Wildflower seeds were scattered and the young scientists waited eagerly to see the results of their hard work.

Using pizza boxes is a great base for revitalizing organic matter in garden beds.

Using pizza boxes is a great base for revitalizing organic matter in garden beds.

Over time, the schoolyard habitat has grown and expanded to continue to provide for the birds. The students greatly enhanced the area, adding numerous patches of wildflowers and shrubs as cover for birds and providing many sources of water.  They hung feeders outside of nearly every classroom at the school.

“Teachers have been very receptive to the idea of feeders and bird study.” Ms. Vigeland says. “I put the feeders around the campus with the different classes and the teachers came on board because of the student’s excitement.”

Birds have become the favorite pastime of the students at Hilltop.

“I have a full size metal garbage can in my classroom for birdseed.” Ms. Vigeland admits. “Every morning my students go to K-3 grades helping the little guys fill their feeders.”

Daily activities include bird watching, making and filling bird feeders, breaking the ice in bird baths, crushing suet into tree bark for woodpeckers, and participating in the Project FeederWatch. Several of Ms. Vigeland’s students have even expressed desires to become ornithologists!

"We are all about the birds!"

“We are all about the birds!”

The students are not just bird-crazy outside the classroom but inside as well. Ms. Vigeland conducts a number of bird-themed activities with her students, some of them planned and some not. The students have made identification cards for local birds that they hang near the feeders to practice their birding skills. For her annual door decorating contest, the kids are drawing birds and the slogan is ‘We’re all about the birds, bout the birds, no troubles’.

“The kids like to say that we are all about the birds. I guess we are!”

Ms. Vigeland’s class is very proud of their accomplishments and continued successes for the birds. They were recognized as a Pennington Habitat Hero on the BirdSleuth Action Map in October 2014 for their scientific observations and improvements to the school yard to make it more bird-friendly.

This spring, the class plans will continue to expand their project. “Right now, with this cold winter, the kids all agree that we need a heated bird bath. At the moment that is out of reach, but it is certainly on our wish list!” The students also want to put in more native plants and shrubs so that birds will have natural food sources next winter. Their project just keeps growing and continues to provide a great habitat for the birds!


Update 4/27/15: Janet Vigeland and her class are happy to be continuing their improvements to their schoolyard this spring. Also, great news! The pizza boxes worked!

Pizza box compost!

Pizza box compost!

The garden is finished!

The garden is finished!






Update 6/16/15: The garden is finished! Janet Vigeland and her students have finished their schoolyard project and are waiting for the birds to discover their new habitat! Ms. Vigeland says: “It [the garden] was a team effort and everyone had a good time working for a great cause!”


Read more about what they have done on their latest Action Map post.


Going further

Interested in being ‘all about the birds’? Start asking questions with our Investigating Evidence curriculum!

Take our new self-paced course, Integrating Inquiry for Educators: Developing Student Science Practices, which is designed to help educators lead their students in the process of inquiry and scientific investigation.

Submit your projects and photos to the BirdSleuth Action Map

Interested in learning more about BirdSleuth and using birds in the classroom? Check out our 3-day summer educator retreat here at the Lab!

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Outdoor Learning : Cornell Lab of Ornithology: BirdSleuth K-12

Post A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *