Migratory birds teach kids in Fairfax County and Central America about their cultures

Imagine: Many of the birds you see here in the spring and summer are also seen during the winter by kids 1,900 miles away on a volcanic island. Now, imagine sharing art and letters with those kids while learning about their lives and customs.

“Bridging the Americas,” a program sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, helps that happen by connecting kids at each end of a bird migration path that stretches from the eastern United States to Central America. This year, 50 classes at 18 schools in the United States partnered with 50 classes at 17 schools in Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Colombia.

Last fall, as migratory birds headed south, second-graders at Lake Anne Elementary in Reston and Fairhill Elementary in Fairfax sent letters, photos, poems and art projects to the Merida School on Ometepe (pronounced “O ma tepay”) Island in Nicaragua. Recently, as those same birds headed north, these classes received packages from Ometepe’s kids.

Both Fairfax County schools had an extra treat because a teacher from each class went to Ometepe to meet the students there. The students got to see one another through a brief video conference.

What did kids learn about birds?

Each student in participating classes selected a type of bird to study. They mapped the migration route, learned about its diet and habitat, and studied the dangers birds face while traveling.

About 200 species of birds breed in North America and spend winters in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Birds that live both in our area and on Ometepe Island include Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, yellow warblers, ovenbirds, summer tanagers and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Students learned that this hummingbird weighs less than a penny. The ovenbird builds a dome-shaped nest on the ground in the forest. Brian Boyce, 8, from Lake Anne, said, “The summer tanager eats wasps, insects and other gross stuff.”

Each year, many birds return to the same forests on Ometepe, often to the same tree! Scientists discovered this through bird banding, which is used all over the world to study the habits of wild birds. Birds from selected species are safely captured, weighed and measured. Then a tiny band with a number is placed on a bird’s leg. Each bird gets its own number. The band doesn’t affect the bird’s ability to fly, and it is released into the wild. Banding helps scientists learn about migration routes because all the bird information is kept in a database that researchers can study.

Life on an island

Ometepe Island has two volcanoes — one is active, the other is not — and is surrounded by a lake where people swim and fish. The Merida School is in a rural town at the base of the inactive volcano where many houses are made of wood and have thatched roofs. Lush forests, which are home to howler monkeys, are nearby.

A favorite sport at the school is baseball, but they hit and catch balls with bare hands (yes, really!) rather than bats and gloves. Ometepe kids love shimmying up the long trunks of papaya trees for the yummy fruit, said the Migratory Bird Center’s Mary Deinlein, who went on the trip with the Fairfax teachers.

Breakfast often consists of beans, rice, cheese and black coffee. Fish from the lake, either fried or in soups, is a favorite for lunch and dinner. Many parents on Ometepe are farmers who sell vegetables and grains at open-air markets.

Ometepe students speak Spanish, so their letters were translated for the students here. One wrote, “We are happy to know that some birds come to visit us and then fly to where you live.”

Sharing art projects

Art is a great way to bridge the language barrier between some of the Virginia and Nicaraguan children.

The Virginia second-graders created computer drawings of birds that were ironed onto T-shirts or used for stick puppets that were sent to Ometepe. Their long-distance buddies created pictures from dyed, cracked eggshells or from the stalks of plantains (a fruit similar to bananas).

Fairhill’s class received a picture of a yellow warbler drawn on a palm-size jicara seed pod. Another young artist, depicting Ometepe with plantain fiber cutouts, used volcanic sand for the beach, prompting one Fairhill second-grader to exclaim, “I don’t have volcanic sand in my back yard!”

That’s part of the fun lessons learned: People in different places use different things to create art.

Ometepe students sent the second-graders in Lake Anne’s Spanish immersion program a video of a traditional celebration dance they do. The Lake Anne students watched, then twirled around, copying the steps.

Lasting lessons

Last year, 9-year-old Isabella Vieria’s Fairhill class partnered with a school in Chiapas, Mexico. She said, “I go bird-watching instead of watching TV now. I can go outside with my friends . . . and learn amazing new things about the birds.”

On Ometepe Island, students who participated in the program encourage their friends to stop using slingshots to hurl hard objects at birds for sport. One student wrote to Fairhill’s class, “We should not kill birds because they beautify our landscape and we rejoice with their songs.”

It seems that more than just birds are flying back and forth between Nicaragua and our area: a lot of knowledge is, too!

— Ann Cameron Siegal