Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1999
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APRIL 1999



S C I E N C E    &    T E C H N O L O G Y

"The ABCs of Birdsong"
Author's Notebook
By Sue De Pasquale

Psychology researcher Greg Ball is an outgoing man with a booming voice and a passion for birds. Recently, I sat with him in his faculty office, where half a dozen stuffed starlings perch stiffly on the bookshelves, to gather information for "The ABC's of Songbirds." Ball's enthusiasm for his science is infectious, and as I sat chatting with him I found myself transported back 25 years to the fourth-grade classroom of Caroline Fisher.

Miss Fisher was cool. She had long blond hair, played the guitar, and sang folk songs like "Blowin' in the Wind." It was under her tutelage that I first learned to differentiate a rufous-sided towhee from a robin, and to spot the distinctive forked tail of a barn swallow in flight. She was happy to share her seemingly bottomless storehouse of avian knowledge with us 9-year-olds, but not without a price: enrolling in her "bird unit" would mean giving up after-lunch recess for three months. I made the sacrifice, along with about two dozen other kids, and remain forever glad that I did.

Miss Fisher was the first teacher to make science a hands-on learning experience for us, and we drank it up. To learn about migratory patterns, we visted a banding station, and held the birds as they were banded. On a field trip to Cylburn Arboretum, she helped us train our ears to recognize the throaty tchew-wew of the purple martin and the harsh tseer of the starling. And we colored-oh, did we color. I must have worn down three different sets of colored pencils in my efforts to create ruby-crowned kinglets and red-breasted nuthatches with just the right markings.

All these years later, the lessons I learned in her classroom stay with me-and I'm passing them on to my own children. On our frequent "nature walks" around the neighborhood, I never miss the opportunity to point out grackles and wrens, or to pause and listen for the muted rat-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-tat of the downy woodpecker.