From the Manchester College Archives

News Release

Contact: Jeri Kornegay
Director of Media and Public Relations
260-982-5285  jskornegay@manchester.edu

 

Manchester biology students

net lessons in nature’s classroom

 

Alex Hall has a close encounter with a blue jay

 

Alex Hall touches the struggling blue jay, awe animating his face. In the record book, he lists the wing size, tail length and other details as his teacher carries the bird around the shelter, giving other students a closer look. Curiosity overcomes any apprehension as the students reach out to touch their brief capture.

The class is Biology 106, taught by Dr. Jerry Sweeten, associate professor of biology. The classroom is Manchester College’s 100-acre nature reserve, Koinonia Environmental and Retreat Center, 12 miles north of campus.

“Everyone loves it,” says Hall, a first-year student from Warsaw, Ind., who is majoring in biology-chemistry. “Dr. Sweeten fascinates me because of his intense interest. His enthusiasm makes learning easier because he’s excited about the subject.”

For three weeks, students in Biology 106 visit the nature center to learn the gentle art of catching and banding birds. A couple days before each class, Sweeten hangs and baits light-weight “mist” nets along the trails. Birds approaching the food are snared in the netting.

At first, Sweeten untangles the birds and performs the banding. “By the third and fourth week, students are actually able to remove the birds from the mist nets and band the birds,” says Sweeten. The experience is unique to the outdoors. “There’s no substitute for … handling live birds in the ‘real world,’” notes the teacher.

During the hands-on lessons, Sweeten offers up interesting facts about the captured birds. He holds a surprisingly calm blue jay, extends its bright blue wing, and tells his confused class that these birds aren’t really blue at all! He explains that their wings are prismatic and reflect blue light from the light spectrum. That’s why they look almost grey on cloudy days.

Some of the lessons of this class are a bit too realistic. Sweeten’s lab assistant, junior biology major Leeland Shaw of Angola, Ind., recalls a story of a hawk waiting nearby, watching the banding. As students released a bird, and it began to fly off  … “all they saw was a puff of feathers.” 

Sometimes, students net a bird already banded. Such recaptures can provide important information about bird life spans, migration habits and growth rates, says Sweeten, who has been banding birds for 20 years.

“It’s like we’re being field biologists instead just working in a lab,” Hall says. “We’re actually in the habitat of something we might talk about (in class).”

Koinonia is a perfect classroom, agrees Sweeten. “The students are able to experience bird adaptations, like the power of a cardinal’s beak, or the feet of a woodpecker, rather than look at pictures in the laboratory.”

Biology majors at Manchester College learn by doing, with field work, in labs, internships, and granted research – side-by-side with scientists like Dr. Sweeten as their teachers, mentors and friends. For more about the natural sciences at Manchester, or to visit campus, visit www.manchester.edu.

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Lab assistant Lee Shaw prepares to release a banded bird