Quick Frozen Critters, Squirrel Fingers & Edible Animal Scat?

A Red-tailed Hawk is circling as it hunts for its prey. The rabbit pauses in its quest for food sensing danger. It freezes. Then quickly darts for cover. The fierce raptor makes a stealthy move towards its intended target. The rabbit flees quickly for the safety of its shelter and narrowly escapes the outstretched talons of the hawk. The rabbit is safe for now. The hawk will continue its hunt in hopes of catching a different rabbit, and its next tasty meal.

Although this is a common sight here among the shortgrass prairie of western Nebraska, this drama isn’t unfolding outdoors, but rather, in the gym of one of Scottsbluff’s elementary schools. The kindergarten, first and second graders in this After School Nature Club have spent time learning about herbivores, carnivores and omnivores as well as predator/prey relationships. They have looked at the skull replicas of mammals and birds to investigate teeth and beaks, touched feathers and mammal pelts, and even carefully investigated an incredibly sharp talon. The group is now playing a game, called “Quick Frozen Critters”, in which the majority of the students are “rabbits”. They need to make it from one side of the gym and back safely without being tagged, or “eaten”, by one of the students who are “hawks”. Along the way the “rabbits” may freeze or seek shelter in a designated “burrow” to avoid being “eaten”. The “rabbits” must travel back and forth several times collecting food tokens from their “habitat”. If they are able to collect enough food tokens and avoid being tagged by one of the “hawks” they survive this round of the game.

During the past school year, I have had the opportunity to share my love of nature and western Nebraska not only with this group of highly enthusiastic “rabbits” and “hawks”, but similar groups at six of the elementary schools within the communities of Scottsbluff and Gering, Nebraska. Together we have had awesome conversations about what nature is and what nature isn’t. How can you have a “Nature Club” otherwise? We’ve discussed the basic needs of all living creatures and different types of habitats found around the globe. Together, we have decided that the area around our schools, our homes, our community and western Nebraska as a whole, provide amazing habitats to many diverse animals and plants. We are a part of nature and it is all around us.

Groups throughout the year have enjoyed activities, games and crafts that have investigated many topics including what our Nebraska animals do in the winter, how challenging some everyday tasks would be using “squirrel fingers” instead of our opposable thumbs, becoming “Nature Detectives” to investigate animal tracks, signs, owl pellets, and even making, and enjoying, some delicious edible “scat”.

“Conservancy” is a big word for kids but they understand that the root of the word, “conserve”, means to save or protect. While we are called “Bird Conservancy” we care about and work to protect not only birds, but all of the living and non-living things that make up the diverse habitats found throughout the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, including right here in western Nebraska. My goal throughout the course of our year together is to have these students realize what a special place they live in. They don’t have to travel far to enjoy all that the natural world has to offer. It is all around them, every single day.

Teaching kids about the wonders and curiosities of the natural world has been my passion for over 20 years. As the Nebraska Environmental Educator for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, I truly feel like I am doing exactly what I have always been meant to do. Two years ago, when I voluntarily started an After School Nature Club at my daughter’s school, I only dreamed of being able to provide this experience to students at other schools. I had no idea that I would now, not only be working for an organization that I wholeheartedly believe in, but also be providing these important educational opportunities to groups of students at different schools several times each week.

Ask any educator and they will tell you that dissecting owl pellets is one of their students favorite activities!

I hope that my passion and enthusiasm for the natural world ignites a spark in these students to not only get outdoors and explore, but to also care about birds and the other animals and plants that we share our home here in western Nebraska with. This is my dream job.

Noelle Grunwald is an Environmental Educator with our Education Team based in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.