Project Wild

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When I lived on Hawk Mountain, I once saw a woman slow as a big black rat snake attempted to cross the road. She brought her vehicle to a dead stop, threw it into reverse, rolled her tires over the snake and squashed its guts. GOT IT!” she replied triumphantly.

She was driven by fear and false information, thinking the only good snake is a dead snake; where in reality, that very creature and its relatives probably kept my home rodent-free (and perhaps disease-free). She needed an education, as do this next generation coming up; the ones who live indoors where the electrical outlets are and know how to work their thumbs better than their shotgun triggers and fishing reels.

Kids are born instinctively loving animals and the natural world for they are our relatives and the earth, our first home. But technology has become a very powerful pull. Schools and organized sports demand more time, parents are busier and as a result, many of our youth have become disconnected to the natural world. Many suffer from what author, Richard Louv coined in his book, Last Child in the Woods, ‘Nature Deficient Disorder’. This long-term disconnect with the natural world can contribute to childhood depression and ADD. This type of child will not  likely grow up to work at defending and supporting something which they are unfamiliar with, do not care about, or worst, are afraid of.

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The Pennsylvania Game Commission is doing their part to combat this with the extremely successful “Project WILD” workshops. This national hands-on conservation-education program focuses on wildlife and the environment and how we as humans interact and relate to both. A variety of topics and species are offered, varying from region to region and year to year. A complete listing is available online but include: Endangered Species, WILD about Elk, Black Bears, PA Songbirds, to name just a few. This professional development opportunity is offered to educators of all sorts, from public, private and home school teachers/facilitators to scout, youth and church group leaders.

In the all-day workshop, attendees experience a sampling of activities and curriculum from this in-depth program. The hope is to receive enough of a background so they can take what they learned and go on to share the knowledge of the Project WILD program with their youth. These skills and practices can be executed on their own or supplemented into already existing curriculum. A hefty book that serves as curriculum and activity guide will act as an aid and is included in registration. Project WILD addresses state and national educational standards and helps educators comply with mandates for the No Child Left Behind Act.

I have joined Game Commission’s Southeast Region Wildlife Education Specialist, Dan Lynch at Montour Preserve for an all-day workshop on Project WILD. I thought I knew wildlife, I thought I loved animals, but I am surprised at what I find.

Dan first explains what the Pennsylvania Game Commission is all about, how they are much more than a hunting law enforcement regulator but their equally important job is education. The game commission believes that education is a key component of conserving and managing wildlife. Dan then dives into teaching us some extremely cool facts about animals and  wows us right off the bat.

He pulls out his box of ‘Show and Tell,’ which everyone finds entertaining and fun, besides a great vehicle for learning: petting coyote pelts, examining skulls, and poking our fingers in cast tracks. We swish an owl wing as opposed to a raptor wing and marvel at the utter silence of the owl.

While passing a beaver pelt around, we learn how bachelor beavers are basically lazy and sloppy, without the presence of a ‘woman’ in the den. Without the need to feed little ones, his lodge becomes run down and he maintains no food cache, merely going out for a quick bite to eat when his growling stomach necessitates it.  But the fact that a beavers’ tail absorbs and stores food in times of lack helps him get through.

Next, Dan illuminates possums in a whole new light. This relatively small mammal has more teeth than ANY mammal- fifty on the average, yet their tongue barely moves. They give birth to an average of twenty-three babies but only have nipples for thirteen. The tiny babies, who are the size of honeybees, must compete for those thirteen spots and the least aggressive, all ten of them, die. That’s a high mortality rate. They don’t hang by their tails either. If we ever see a picture of this, it was rigged. I don’t think I will ever gaze at this critter crossing the road again without an elevated feeling of affection and appreciation.

The wonderful thing about Dan Lynch’s style of teaching is his easy wit and comfort with being in front of a group. He is so entertaining in the way he presents the Project Wild material, I want to attend every workshop he is scheduled to lead, (as well as the other game commission educators) and glean even more knowledge. His enthusiasm is infectious.

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‘Feet are Neat’

This next exercise is a very ‘neat’ way to learn about bird adaptation. At each table, a set of four different feet are handed out with a chart identifying seven different types of birds: climbers, graspers, perchers, waders, runners, scratchers, and swimmers. The feet, from tiny songbird feet to big strapping turkey feet, are nicely dried and not gross or smelly.  Once we identify what body the foot once belonged to, we can understand how and why their feet were designed to aid them in their lifestyle, to help them survive and thrive. For example, I never knew that the kingfishers we see flying about the rivers while we paddle, actually have webbed feet for ease of digging in the mud.

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Next, Dan hands out an owl pellet on a paper plate to each person, a bunch of toothpicks and a chart to identify bones that we might find in each coughed-up hair ball. He offers latex gloves if anyone is squeamish but puts it in perspective, “Owl pellets are not gross. Door knobs are gross.”

He advises us to treat these activities with our kids as if what we are doing and handling is perfectly normal. If we do not act scared, good chance most of them will just take it in stride too.

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We learn that if an owl pellet is white, it was obtained from a rehab bird in captivity, which only eats laboratory white rats. We dig around and remove hair and find tails with vertebrates, a voles’ set of choppers with the whiskers still intact. Dan says the owl coughed up this critters’ bones before it decomposed. We find tiny molars attached to jaw bones, hip bones with their ball and socket. We look at them under a magnifying glass and are amazed at their intricacies despite their very small size. We can take the bones home and even assemble them and glue the skeletons back together if we choose. Owl pellets can be purchased for $2.65 a piece and are an amazing learning tool, besides being great fun. Dan shares resources with us on where to buy anything from skulls to owl pellets for ‘Show and Tell.’  The Game Commission, however, has many kits available free-of-charge for educators to borrow.

PLAYING GAMES

“You don’t stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing.”

Dan lets us take a break from indoor learning to go onto the grassy lawn so we could play some games. We play ‘Quick Frozen Critters’, a predator/prey game where students play an active game of freeze tag. The group is divided into predators (rabbits) and prey (coyotes) and the predators are on the search for food, and must go out and fetch it, one piece at a time; then return to a safety area before getting eaten (tug) by a prey. There is much running, laughter and good-natured fun as we all pretend to be animals in the wild, attempting to meet our needs.

Dan says that in the nearly twenty-years he has been teaching, no adult has ever refused to play, they all played freeze tag as kids and through this activity, they ‘get’ th every important concept of the food chain.

After we see how many rabbits have been ‘captured’ and graph the results on a chart, we discuss what would have produced different results, had the ratio/combo been different or behavior altered. A group can go on to make different combinations of predator vs. prey and analyze these results and compare the results, comparing to real life in the wild.

“This game really illustrates the whole concept of the food chain,” Dan explains. “So many children do not understand where their food comes from. They are only familiar with the grocery store. They open the fridge and get all the food that they need. Even teachers forget we are even in the food chain and we need to remind them of that so they relate this information to the children.”

Then we move into ‘How Many Bears Can Live in This Forest’ game, which illustrates the importance of suitable habitat for wildlife. Here, the students must also go out and gather food. Some of the bears have ‘issues’- one is crippled, one is blind, one is pregnant and needs more food for her cubs. There is a porcupine lurking and some bears have run-ins with this creature. The bears need fifty-two pieces of food in order to survive, as their habitat is limited (to the lawn!). When their colored food discs are counted up, it is clear that not many will make it, as the habitat components affect their survival.

Another game called ‘Oh Deer!’ talks about habitat and its limiting factors. Four things make up habitat: food, shelter, water and space in order to keep the animal happy and healthy. Some of the students have their hands on their heads, indicating they are representing shelter. Hands on their mouths mean they are water, on their stomach- food. We do another round and change up the scenario- less space, less food, etc. We learn about population dynamics and make a chart to show how the population is affected which produces different results.

With a group of our size (18) we can create different combinations and scenarios, then chart them, thereby making it much clearer to understand how animals are affected by their habitat.

‘The Nose Knows’

Back indoors, Dan passes out numbered film containers, three to a table, with cotton balls inside saturated with an extract.  We take a good whiff, pass a container of coffee grinds under our nostrils to ‘cleanse’ our olfactory nerves in-between, and decide what we think the smell reminds us of. Then we ‘go find our kid,’ by traveling down a line of students with corresponding containers and try to identify what we smelled. This is how animals find their babies, or use this most important sense to mark territory, find a mate in heat, and differentiate between predators and prey. This game illustrates how important the sense of smell is to mammals.

Dan says he knows that many educators do not have the time to do ‘Show and Tell’ and the game commission’s team of wildlife officers can visit schools/organizations/libraries/parks and present these programs for them. They are not there as filler-material however, but supplemental learning. There are also kits available to lend out in twelve of the fifty-eight counties. These portable kits contain wildlife furs, skulls, tracks, etc.

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I already knew and loved wildlife and the wild places in which they inhabit, but Dan Lynch and my Project WILD workshop fed the flame. And isn’t this the mark of a great program and a great teacher- to instill in us the desire to want to learn and pass on what we learn. This is truly our only hope- for the future and health of wildlife and the wild places in which they live. Because out of everything Project WILD has taught us, we learned that we cannot separate ourselves from this web.

(A version of this story appeared in the Pennsylvania Game News Magazine- March  2013)

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