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Maeve Ryan was a little apprehensive in her sixth-grade science class last month. The 11-year-old had a three-pound Falcon perched on her arm.
Ryan became an assistant, of sorts, when falconer Craig Hendee visited Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., to talk about restoring birds of prey back to their natural habitat.
He brought with him two birds of prey, a white gyrfalcon named Bo, and Alvin, a brownish gray peregrine falcon. Students in the class each had a chance to handle the birds, which were accustomed to human contact.
"I thought it would fall off," said Ryan who, along with many of her classmates, saw for the first time a falcon up close. "It felt like when I walked, it would jerk. But I liked it."
Ryan and her classmates are participating in an international conservancy project, called the Mongolian Artificial Nesting Project (MANP). The project aims to restore Sakar falcons back to the wild in Mongolia, a half a world away. MANP is the largest conservation initiative in the world.
Julian Middle School is among four other U.S. schools involved in the project, which partners students with a school in Mongolia. Two schools in Wales are also involved in the project.
Through the project, students interact with their international counterparts via video chats, sharing what they've learned about different birds of prey in their respective countries and efforts to preserve them. Students also learn about falcons' cultural significance in Mongolian history.
Hendee's visit provided a hands-on learning experience for the students. He said reading a text book on the flight pattern of migratory birds wouldn't allow students to relate to the Mongolian project. Also, he explained, students see first-hand how the conservancy works since the U.S. peregrine falcon was an endangered species like Mongolia's Sakar falcons. Conservation efforts brought the peregrine back, he noted.
"It is just another level of science education to get the students involved, and the live falcon always does it," said Hendee, of the International Heritage Conservancy, an organization that works to preserve the art of falconry.
"The kids were asking about researching birds of prey and what [they] can read and that kind of things — that's what we want," he said, adding that there is a lot of carryover from this experience.
Hendee said more students are interested in going to nature centers or notice birds of prey, like the Cooper's hawk, nesting in Oak Park. One student even brought in a feather to see what species it came from.
"It's funny to think a couple of hawks can do that," he noted. But that kind of active learning is why sixth-grade teacher Seth Baker chose the project. He said the project is interdisciplinary, one in which students learn biology, conservation and cultural immersion. Students are even developing a website to document their experience.
"It's real world," Baker said. "As a science teacher, I am always thrilled when kids learn about what's in their backyard and appreciate it.
"We are all studying the same conservation effort, and it gives us a chance to start with that and then grow from there learning more about general culture," Baker said, noting that this is the school's first year in the program.
MANP started six years ago with a 10 year-grant funded by United Arab Emirates. Since its inception 1,200 baby Sakar falcons were conceived in manmade nests formed from old oil barrels.
Ryan said she is glad to be part of a project to restore an endangered species and meeting people from Mongolia.
"I thought it was really awesome, because I really like animals," added sixth-grader Julia Eisner, 11. She said she aspires to be a falconer someday.
Baker said he set out to give students an appreciation and wonder of the natural world.
"There are certain curriculum things that I am going to teach that they will not remember, but an experience like this is going to be more indelible for them."
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