By Melanie Furr, Director of Education
I first met Kimberly Johnson four years ago, when she invited me to present a program about the common birds of Atlanta to her gifted students at Hightower Elementary, a Title I school in DeKalb County. Like most students I interact with, her students were enthusiastic to learn about birds, but I remember thinking her class was exceptionally attentive and knowledgeable. After the program, she showed me a beautiful display of bird-themed books she had created in the school library. Little did I know that afternoon that Kimberly and I would have several opportunities to work together to connect students with birds and the natural world around them.
The following spring, when Kimberly applied for a spot in Atlanta Audubon’s summer professional development workshop for teachers, Taking Wing, from a new teaching position at Hutchinson Elementary (in the Atlanta Public Schools district), I didn’t immediately recognize her name, so I was thrilled when she reminded me we’d met previously at Hightower. An eager and enthusiastic workshop participant, Kim incorporated new teaching ideas from the training when the school year resumed, getting her students even more involved in bird study, writing a grant and receiving binoculars for her class, and putting up feeders and nest boxes. When Atlanta Audubon received funding to support our Connecting Students to STEM through Birds program, which provides bird-friendly native plant gardens, classroom resources, and binoculars to Title I schools in metropolitan Atlanta, in addition to training for teachers and programming for students, collaborating with Kimberly and Hutchinson Elementary was an obvious choice.
In the spring of 2017, about 30 teachers, students, and parents from Hutchinson showed up after school to help with the installation of Hutchinson’s native plant garden, led by our partner, Daniel Ballard, of Convivial Gardens, LLC. Before the planting started, Daniel and I talked to the students about the connection between birds and plants and explained that we were about to create a buffet for wildlife. Daniel pretended to eat a caterpillar, which made all of the children laugh. We planted about 90 plants, including trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, all selected to provide food and cover for birds and requiring minimal care. In spite of a hot afternoon and tough digging conditions, everyone couldn’t have been more enthusiastic or helpful. Several older boys eagerly volunteered to dig the big holes for a beautiful river birch and a pair of wax myrtles, while younger children worked in pairs to plant smaller perennials like purple coneflower, beautyberry, goldenrod, and little bluestem. At the end of the afternoon, when Kimberly hung a nectar feeder on a newly installed post, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird showed up within minutes—a perfect ending to our efforts.
Recently, Conservation Program Coordinator Lillie Kline, Conservation Program Intern Kiana Leveritte, and I had the opportunity to return to Hutchinson Elementary and certify it as an official Atlanta Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. Although the native plants in the school garden require minimal maintenance, students and teachers have done an excellent job tending the garden and keeping it free of invasive plants, and I was amazed to see how much everything had grown and filled in. The goldenrod, barely knee-high when planted, is now taller than most of the students, who, in spite of a bitter cold wind on the day of our visit, were excited to show us around. They were especially proud of the kiosk with informational flyers they had made, highlighting birds and plants found in the garden. Kimberly reports that they have recorded 31 species of birds on their campus, which sits just a stone’s throw from I-75 in the southwest corner of Atlanta, noting that students have been particularly amazed by flocks of Cedar Waxwings that have visited the past couple of winters. Her students are currently studying migration patterns of birds that pass through Georgia, using eBird to create maps of their routes.
Visiting Hutchinson is a great reminder that beautiful birds can turn up anywhere. Providing quality habitat, even on a small scale, can make an important difference for birds. Where birds are thriving, people also flourish—just like the smiling students showing off their garden at Hutchinson Elementary. We are grateful for Kimberly’s partnership and her dedication to sharing the joy of birding and nature with her students, and we look forward to our next opportunity to visit Hutchinson. We can’t wait to create more certified bird-friendly gardens in Atlanta-area schools.