Traditionally, teachers in many Long Island elementary schools incubate chicken or duck eggs in the classroom so children may learn about their life cycles, culminating in their hatching in the spring.
Teachers in the North Bellmore Elementary School District recently took a different approach. They switched from chicks to bobwhite quail. The baby birds were released into a wildlife preserve this summer as part of an initiative designed to help keep a growing tick population in check on Long Island. The North Bellmore District takes in students from North Bellmore and North Merrick.
“Quail? Ticks? You might be wondering, what’s the connection?” said Lauren LoBello, kindergarten teacher at John Dinkelmeyer Elementary School. “Quite simply put, quail eat ticks.”
LoBello’s students, with their fourth- and fifth-grade buddies, as well as children in several other classes in schools within the North Bellmore district, joined in the battle against Long Island’s growing, Lyme-disease spreading tick population by overseeing the incubation and hatching one of the tick’s natural predators, bobwhite quail. Then, late last month, a number of them took time out during their summer to free the quail at the 543-acre Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown.
The North Bellmore Educational Foundation provided the funding to purchase 200 bobwhite quail eggs and incubation supplies for use in 10 classrooms throughout the six schools in the district. The school district encompasses Dinkelmeyer School and four others located in North Bellmore and one in North Merrick.
“In an effort to involve the larger school community, kindergartners were paired with fourth- or fifth-grade students to complete a wide variety of interdisciplinary activities,” Lo Bello explained.
The bobwhite quail reintroduction initiative, in which 16 schools now participate island-wide, is the brainchild of environmental educator Eric Powers of the Western Suffolk BOCES Outdoor/Environmental Education Program.
About eight years ago, Powers noticed greater numbers of ticks on the students he led on nature hikes through the Caleb Preserve. At that time, at what he calls the “peak of tick madness on Long Island,” he found 40 ticks on a group of 25 kids one day, and at least one on every child on an average day. “The tick population was out of control,” he said. “What is out of balance here? I asked. Something in the ecosystem is out of balance.”
Powers took an inventory of the wildlife in the preserve and realized that the tick’s natural predators were missing. “We had lost our species of ground nesting birds. Ground nesting game birds such as grouse and bobwhite quail eat ticks and other insects,” he said.
Powers soon figured out how this had happened. “The preserve is surrounded by houses,” Powers said. “Invariably, people let their housecats out. And there are feral cats also. Cats are the [birds'] predators. And the same pattern is happening at all of our parks.”
Powers could do little to change cat or cat owner behavior. Instead, he set out to find a way to introduce a sufficient number of ground nesting birds into the disrupted ecosystem, hoping to restore its balance. As an educator, he hit upon a way to do this when he remembered that chick and duck egg incubation projects were part of many elementary classroom biology lessons. Since there is no need for baby chickens or ducklings, they are usually destroyed. Powers’s plan solved that issue also.
Now, every April or May, increasing numbers of Long Island elementary school teachers buy quail eggs and incubate them. Over two to three weeks, the children watch the quail embryos develop, shining flashlights to see inside the eggs, and otherwise caring for and examining them as they develop in the classroom until the baby birds hatch.
“Through this experience, the students in North Bellmore have learned about the life cycle and development of quail through authentic and hands-on experiences,” Lo Bello said, raving about how excited the students were about raising the young birds. “The project gave the children an opportunity to care for live animals in a respectful way.”
Newly hatched quail need to be removed within days or they start to fly, so they are brought to the preserve where Powers, together with a group of environmentally concerned volunteers, care for them until they are about eight to 10 weeks old. Powers then schedules their release date, usually in late July. He notifies the teachers who invite any interested children and their parents to witness the event, which is also open to the public.
About 50 students came to the preserve with their teachers this summer and set free about 500 small brown birds. The students included kindergartners from LoBello’s class and from Robin Obey’s class at Park Avenue School in North Merrick, as well as older children.
LoBello said her students were thrilled when their birds were released. “When the students are very young children, kindergartners for example,” Powers added, “we designate a group of quail to their class and tell them these are their quail, and give them their own place to release the birds.”
Although few quail make it through to the next spring because of the continuing cat problem, Powers considers the program a success. “What I love about this program,” Powers said, “is it gets so many people involved in nature, in the complex web of life on Long Island.”
“Now it’s difficult to find a tick on children after they hike in the park,” he remarked. His re-population efforts will continue each spring. When asked what he would do if more schools started raising quail and he had more than 500 to release next summer, he said, “I would love to have that problem.”
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