Where the Birds Live: Using Web-Based Maps to Explore Bird Habitats and Migration Patterns

By MaKinster, James; Trautmann, Nancy et al. | The Science Teacher, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Where the Birds Live: Using Web-Based Maps to Explore Bird Habitats and Migration Patterns


MaKinster, James, Trautmann, Nancy, Burch, Carol, Watkins, Michelle, The Science Teacher


Species richness, migration, habitats, ecological niches, adaptations: Concepts such as these come alive when students explore and analyze landscapes, environmental characteristics, and related biological features represented on digital maps. Most students are familiar with navigation tools integrated into smartphone apps but may be surprised to learn that the same mapping technologies are found in biological, environmental, and conservation research. Using maps or tabular spatial data, students can construct powerful scientific arguments grounded in real data.

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One user-friendly yet powerful mapping tool is ArcGIS Online (see "On the web"). GIS stands for "Geographic Information System," which refers to a data management system that captures, processes, and displays spatial data. Teachers and students can use maps provided on the website, build their own from a large repository of online data, or create maps using data they enter themselves. ArcGIS Online is free, fast, and reliable. (For information on organizational licenses, see "On the web"). Research on use of GIS in science and environmental education has documented the challenges as well as opportunities (Barnett et al. 2013).

This article describes two cases in which the authors used web-based GIS maps in student inquiry focused on bird habitats, biodiversity, and conservation. The maps and lessons were developed in collaboration with almost 60 teachers who participated in the Crossing Boundaries Project (see "On the web"). Each lesson was co-designed with teachers, piloted during professional development workshops, field tested in the classrooms of participating teachers, and continually refined. Each case describes a map, corollary lesson sequence, student investigation highlights, and a teacher's implementation experience. The teacher using the first lesson was teaching a ninth-grade course entitled STEM 9. The teacher using the second lesson was teaching environmental science for grades 11 and 12. In both cases, the teachers were using desktop computers in a wired computer lab. The maps and related resources are available online (see "On the web").

Lesson 1: What lives where and why?

The New York State (NYS) Breeding Bird Atlas is a comprehensive survey of breeding birds in the state, conducted by over 1,200 volunteers between the years 2000 and 2005 (McGowan and Corwin 2008). The survey divided the state into 5,332 five-by-five-kilometer blocks, each of which was systematically surveyed to document the presence or absence of 244 bird species during the nesting season. Using the resulting data, we created a map in ArcGIS Online showing nesting locations of 20 selected bird species in New York (Figure 1). Eight additional map layers portray environmental and geographic data such as land use, elevation, annual minimum temperature, and the presence of rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

Exploring these map layers, students see that some bird species are generalists, nesting virtually everywhere across the state, while others are specialists that nest only in more narrowly defined habitats. Examining data in these various map layers, students explore species-specific habitat requirements. Students then compare the habitat requirements of a generalist versus a specialist species and use the All About Birds website (see "On the web") to find information about adaptations and habitat needs of each selected species (Figure 2). Using this information, students try to discern how the distribution of each species relates to landscape and environmental features seen on the map.

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Comparing and contrasting the life history and distribution of selected bird species, students learn important ecological and environmental concepts related to adaptations, species distribution, habitats, ecosystems, and generalist versus specialist species. …

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