On an unpaved road at the edge of a Guatemalan cloudforest, Rob Cahill and a small group of schoolteachers stand watching black-capped swallows, small yet regal-looking birds with dark crowns, in the trees above. The educators are there as part of Connecting Kids Through Birds, a program spearheaded by Cahill’s nonprofit, Community Cloud Forest Conservation, and backed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goal is to enlist third through eleventh graders as citizen scientists through eBird, the online database created by Audubon and Cornell more than a decade ago.
“The kids walk from their house to the school and from school to their house every day,” says Cahill, an American expat who has lived in Guatemala for almost 13 years. “They always do the same hike” so each student has a logical, regular transect. Cahill asks the students to note which birds they see on their 10- to 45-minute walks, species like the resplendent quetzal, the bushy-crested jay, and several warbler species. Eventually they input the data into eBird—in their native Q’eqchi’ Maya. “These kids already know a lot of birds,” he says. “They have a really good starting point.”
Learning from Cahill and the program’s training, the teachers augment the students’ knowledge about the species and the important forests they inhabit. They also teach them how to think scientifically and what deforestation means to the species that count on the habitat. “If we’re going to save the cloudforest in the central highlands in Guatemala, it has to be by working with the people,” Cahill says. “We have to really get in and instill a new ethic” to prevent further destruction.
Since the program began in June 2011, it has expanded from two teachers and six schools to 12 teachers and 34 schools. And though the grant money ends this June, Cahill says matching funds will allow the effort to continue at least through 2014. He acknowledges that the program is still a work in progress and that the students can’t always submit complete checklists to eBird. But, he says, they’re growing. “These little kids are learning that they can contribute to science—and they’re doing it through eBird.”