“From a political standpoint and an educational standpoint, if people can’t identify biodiversity, they are not going to value it,” Jerald Dosch says.

“Say these words in the dorm: ‘about, bag, boat,’” says professor Jerald Dosch to his ornithology students. Today’s lecture is about song acquisition, and it turns out that local birds have a midwestern accent of sorts. “Just like in humans, birds develop regional dialects,” Dosch continues. “You’ll have to learn a general sound, but you will have to adjust for regional dialects.”

Ornithology, offered by the biology department, is an advanced course for students interested in the biology of birds, ecology, and conservation. Students learn to identify the common birds of Minnesota—dialects and all—with a special emphasis on Twin Cities birds. Throughout the semester, the class has gone birding at Dodge Nature Center and other nearby locations along the Mississippi River. “I’ve gotten a lot better at identification,” says Julia Evelyn ‘20 (Ithaca, N.Y.), a geography major who plans to minor in biology. “You get to apply all of the things that you’ve been learning.” By noting a bird’s color, song, movement, habitat, and behavior before they reach for their field guides, Dosch says students are truly bird watching, not just checking birds off a list, and thus learning powerful skills of observation.

Lectures and a weekly lab are supplemented with episodes of the BBC’s The Life of Birds, featuring David Attenborough. The series bring birds from far beyond Minnesota into the classroom, along with Attenborough’s intrepid and utter enthusiasm. “Got it!” Attenborough shouts as a crossbill, which can twist the upper and lower parts of its beak in opposite directions, extracts a seed from a pine cone.

Dosch, who describes Attenborough as “awesome,” says, “I was straightforward with the students—the eight of us discussing bird behavior is just not the same as watching a bird of paradise do its amazing dance while singing, right?”

In the classroom and out in the field, Dosch’s teaching style is relaxed and conversational. “I think I expected the class to be more lecture-y and less discussion-y,” says Evelyn. “I really enjoy the format; it’s very conducive to learning. And I like that it’s a small class, and we all kind of know each other.”  

Like many classes at Macalester, writing is a core component of the curriculum. In addition to exams, labs, and bird-identification quizzes in the field, each student is responsible for writing and presenting an NSF-style proposal to explore a specific area of avian ecology and to gain experience in scientific argumentative writing.  

In studying birds, even a bird as common as a chickadee, Dosch sees important lessons. “From a political standpoint and an educational standpoint, if people can’t identify biodiversity, they are not going to value it,” he says. “They are not going to enjoy it, it’s not going to inform their purchases, their voting, so I see political impacts moving forward.”

Out in the field on an early spring day with snow still on the ground, a soft “churr, churr” up above stops the class in its path. They help each other find the bird with their binoculars, and then observe, quietly calling out details about the bird as it moves along a tree trunk.  “Okay,” says Dosch, “this will be number 12 on your quiz. Write down your answer and hand it to me.”

When everyone has provided their hand-written answer to Dosch, they discuss the bird, quickly landing on a kind of woodpecker, then discuss it some more—size, sex, color—before arriving at the correct answer: a red-bellied woodpecker. “Good,” says Dosch. He hears something up ahead. “Number 13 is an audible,” he tells the class, “so keep your ears open,” and they all move off together toward the sound.

May 14 2018

Back to top