Huddled under a canopy of trees near Bear Creek in Ashland, a dozen St. Mary's School environmental science students focused their attention on biologist Bob Frey and a small golden-crowned sparrow clenched in the palm of his hand.
The bird typically nests in the tundras of Alaska and Canada but travels down to Oregon, where scientists such as Frey capture the birds each year to track the health of their populations.
"We probably have the best data on this bird's population trends," said Brandon Breen, another bird scientist and the outreach specialist for the Klamath Bird Observatory.
Frey, leader of the KBO seasonal banding station, captured a handful of live birds Thursday morning, studied their health and tagged them with a small metal monitoring band before releasing them. Nationwide, more than a million birds are banded every year by scientists.
Frey, KBO education program leader Jeanine Moy and other KBO staff are working with St. Mary's students as the organization develops its own curriculum for potential use in schools across the country.
"I think it's important for students to learn about the environment they live in," said Moy.
Moy said she'll spend the next few months working on curriculum with the hope teachers in both elementary and secondary schools will incorporate more environmental education into the classroom.
KBO, which runs a research station through Willow Wind Learning Center in Ashland, is partnering with an advanced placement environmental science class from St. Mary's in Medford for the first time. The partnership allows the students to work with KBO biologists and learn about the importance of bird banding for the environment.
"It sort of brings another aspect of reality into the class," said sophomore Sam Becker, who hopes to one day go to college for biology and law and is considering becoming a lawyer who focuses on science.
"It's a great way to learn from experience," said Becker, 16. "It's better than learning from a textbook."
Earlier this week, Becker said a KBO biologist brought in tubes with dead birds in each, allowing students to identify the species up close.
Becker said he learned about bird migration, habitats and ecosystems during class this week, and visiting the watershed on Thursday helped bring the classroom to life.
"Birds are a keystone species and an environmental indicator," said Becker.
During the field trip, Frey and another biologist repeatedly ran back to mist nets they had laid out to catch birds near the creek, making sure that no bird stayed trapped for very long before being inspected and set free.
"The purpose of bird banding is really powerful," said Moy. "More powerful than just watching birds."
Moy said she hoped that bringing students into the research field would show them the possibilities of a career in science.
"They'll see a profession that is a potential for them, that they don't see every day," said Moy. "I think they're pretty engaged."
Breen said that by capturing birds and studying them up close, scientists can learn far more about the animal and the habitat they live in.
"Birds are one of the easiest things to study," said Breen. "With the banding, we get more information. We get a sense of how well they're surviving, and we can see how successfully they're reproducing."
The health of the environment is directly related to humans' own well being, Breen said.
As KBO expands its reach, it's communicating with similar bird observatories and other organizations in the Pacific Northwest to better study bird migration and population trends and more easily identify the source of a problem if a particular bird species begins to suffer.
"If there's a problem, studying allows us to focus our conservation efforts," said Breen.
In spring, the students will travel with biologists into the Ashland watershed to learn more about how bird habitats act as indicators of an environment's health.
Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.