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Kids can count birds, win prizes in state contest

POSTED: April 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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What kid doesn’t love a treasure hunt?

In this case, the "hunt" is a challenge to see who can find the most bird species. March 31 is the deadline to register for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ third annual Youth Birding Competition, open to children in grades K-12.

The event takes place during a 24-hour period beginning at 5 p.m. May 2. Teams can search for birds anywhere in Georgia, but they must be at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Mansfield by 5 p.m. May 3 for the awards banquet.

Tim Keyes, a nongame biologist with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, said he created the event three years ago to help kids reconnect with nature. Though there are prizes given in various categories, he doesn’t emphasize the competitive aspect.

"The main goal is to get everyone outside and enjoying the experience," he said.

About 100 children participated in 2007, and Keyes is hoping for more this year.

"I’m really excited about the interest this has generated," he said. "It’s spreading mostly by word-of-mouth."

Last year’s winning team, from a high school in Macon, found 126 species. Keyes said teams that are able to travel to Georgia’s coast have a better chance of winning, because they’ll see a greater diversity of bird habitats.

"But some teams just stay on the Charlie Elliott property the whole time, and they still see a lot of birds," he said.

Registration forms, rules and instructions about the contest are available at the DNR’s nongame Web site.

Each team must consist of at least two children. Their adult chaperones are not allowed to help them locate or identify the birds.

Todd Schneider, a DNR wildlife biologist, entered his two sons in the contest last year.

They counted 80 species, winning second place in the grades three through five category.

Schneider said even young children can learn to differentiate between species with surprising accuracy.

"But for a bird to be counted, at least two team members have to identify it, so you’re not just basing it on what one kid saw," he said.

Schneider said his sons are not diehard birders, and he didn’t push them into it.

"I see so many parents doing that with kids in sports, and I didn’t want that," Schneider said. "I wanted this to be fun for them."

He said the boys enjoyed learning something different and making new friends.

"And the banquet’s great. There’s a raptor (bird-of-prey) show, and lots of door prizes. The kids love it," he said.

Keyes said the sooner teams are formed, the better, because it takes some time to develop good birding skills.

"We pair up each team with a volunteer mentor, mostly people from local Audubon Society chapters," he said. "I also offer a training day in mid-April at Charlie Elliott."

Keyes said he didn’t know if high gas prices might affect participation this year.

"But the event itself involves just one day of travel, and there’s no cost for anything else," he said. "In addition to the banquet, the kids get free T-shirts and boxed breakfasts and lunches."

Schneider, who is compiling an atlas of breeding birds in Georgia, hopes when some of these kids grow up, they’ll want to become involved in doing field surveys.

"We’ve been worried about the next generation of volunteers, because we didn’t know hardly any young birders," he said. "We’re such an urban society, and most kids have very little exposure to the outdoors. I hope that this event will help change that."



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