Manchester biology students
net lessons in nature’s classroom
Alex Hall has a close encounter with a
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.
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
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
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