A Natural Selection Activity for the Classroom

I realised today that I am in my tenth year of teaching, if you include my PGCE year. This means I have had plenty of time to hone and personalise activities to fit my teaching style and the numerous science specifications that I have used. Nonetheless, I remain in a continuous process of refining and improving student activities. Today I tried out an experiment that I’ve been developing for a while and I think I have finally got it right. It fits all biology syllabi as a model for natural selection.

Take a red tray and a green tray. Roll twenty green balls and twenty red balls from coloured putty and place inside the green tray before giving it a shake to randomize their positions. Working in pairs, Student A places a translucent blindfold over their eyes, so that their vision is impaired but not completely blocked. They are given forceps to pick up the balls and beaker to place them in.  Student B times Student A for thirty seconds whist Student A predates upon as many balls as they can by picking them out with forceps and placing in a beaker. The number of red and green balls surviving in the tray is recorded. Students then swap over and again record the result before repeating the experiment using a red tray.

All pupils in the class share the results on a table on the main whiteboard and the average number of red/green balls surviving in red/green trays calculated. At this point I ask key questions about reliability increasing and (for A-level) standard deviation lowering as we add more results. Percentage increase and decrease in rates of survival can then be worked out using the averages.

This leads into discussion about allele frequency and the effect of environmental stability. A good example to link in would be the frequency of peppered moth morphs during the last 200 years in different parts of the UK in response to soot deposition.

moths

Black and white morphs of Peppered moth

Pupils should discuss the independent (colour of background), dependent (number of surviving green/red balls) and control variables (same blindfold, same forceps, 30 seconds) along with the limitations of the experiment. I like to point out that only a very small survival advantage is needed to cause an increase or decrease in allele frequency over thousands of generations and millions of years. This is also a good opportunity to link ideas about bottle-neck effects, inbreeding depression and gene extinction.

If you can think of any further improvements, please comment below!

Advertisements

The Creation of a School Rewilding Zone

Rewilding Zone 2

Leaf litter added and improved sunlight exposure since cutting back

We have two designated areas for outdoor science learning on campus – The Science Garden and the Rewilding Zone. When I first arrived in August 2016, there was no Rewilding Zone but there was a Science Garden, which excited me. The prospect of having our own outdoor space where students can carry out investigations without worrying too much about making a mess. A place set aside for digging soil, pulling up flowers for dissection and looking under bark. But some improvements were needed. My first idea was to take the goldfish out of the pond so that macroinvertebrates could flourish and pupils could use them for biological pollution indicator investigations, draw as anatomical diagrams (a skill assessed in Cambridge IGCSE in the Alternative to Practical) and make dichotomous identification keys based on number of legs etc. Secondly, I asked for every other pine tree to be taken out, given they were planted very close to one another so as to exclude almost all sunlight from hitting the ground. Thirdly, I wanted to get rid of the non-native ornamental flower beds and replace with wildflowers.

All three requests were denied. I think this is because the Science Garden is seen by a lot of parents, being next to the on-site café at the front of school, and the powers that be were worried it would look scruffy if my suggested plans went ahead. This was frustrating, but I can see their point (although anyone reading this blog probably appreciates the value of such scruffiness as much as I do) and I was offered a hidden space behind the football pitch as an alternative site where we would have more freedom to make changes. The Science Garden still has its uses, such as soil sampling to test for parameters such as pH, which Year 8 have been in there doing today.

So in January, the ‘Rewilding Zone’ was created – An area approximately 15x20m2 (a little less than a 5-a-side football pitch) previously used to store maintenance equipment. Though of course small, it is roughly the same size as the Science Garden and has enough space to work with to be of use for learning. We put in a workbench and a small pond, took out a couple of trees and cut those remaining right back to reduce shade. I employed the help of Bird Club to help sow two packets of wildflower mix and one of bird’s foot trefoil so hopefully we will see a good variety of pollinators in there come springtime for Nature Club to I.D and learn more about (I’ve decided to extend the Bird Club’s interests to include wildflowers and invertebrates so a name change was needed). Just as a result of not being cut for a few months, the grass grew taller and flowers emerged which by June had attracted three species of bee and lots of burnet moths.

Buff-tailed bumblebee

Buff-tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris feeding on Prunella vulgaris flowers after six months of no cutting

Problems that have emerged include the maintenance team cutting the grass by mistake, iron sheets being stored over summer which blocked out what little light there was – causing die-back, the primary school using the area to grow vegetables and place scarecrows, and the ubiquitous litter problem (I suspect pupils are sneaking in at break times and free periods, so I have been popping in regularly). Originally I wanted half of the coniferous plants taken out but since those in the Science Garden attracted nesting long-eared owls and having seen small flocks of goldcrest around campus, I am happy with cutting back before winter and only taking out where very dense.

Maintenance have kindly dumped and spread collected leaf litter from around school to add to the soil layer and provide organic material for decomposers (possibly hedgehogs too), as well as piling up ten felled logs that have already attracted fungus. Nature Club will design an information board outlining species they have identified in the Rewilding Zone, of the kind typically seen when entering a national park.

This is rewilding on a very limited small scale. Some would argue it isn’t actually rewilding at all. The Habitat Restoration Zone? Are sown wildflowers truly wild? The pollinators they attract are, save honey bees from man-made hives. Regardless, the site will serve its purpose in teaching pupils about the science behind rewilding and how we can attract greater diversity to an area by giving a little helping hand before stepping back. Species that were once excluded from an area can return given enough opportunity – carrying ecosystem functions along with them – whether red squirrel, lynx, burnet moth or buff-tailed bumblebee. Not to mention the sheer joy, excitement and wonderment that goes along with being in the presence of a previously absent animal, plant or fungus; whether you see it on any given occasion or not.

Many of the ideas behind rewilding are not new but concept as a whole is. My spellcheck wants to change the word to rewinding and a workable definition is yet to be fully agreed upon, though some opponents are purposefully attempting to confuse matters by feigning misunderstanding. It is a nuanced word that requires context and in the context of learning, I think calling our new area the ‘Rewilding Zone’ is wholly appropriate.

GCSE Field Trip to Danube Delta

danube delta trip second boat

Second boat on Danube delta tributary

Introduction

This was a biology and geography three-day trip to the Danube delta wetland biosphere reserve designed to supplement the ecological units of the IGCSE specifications.

Day 1

The bus turned up ten minutes late and the driver got lost. We ended up in the middle of a herd of goats having overshot a turning by 15 minutes. A change of plan was needed so after a quick snack and room allocations we walked 1km to a patch of marshland to take samples of biological indicator species. Students got very good results, surprisingly so considering October is not an ideal time of year for macroinvertebrate larvae. I can only imagine the diversity and numbers that must be there in spring and summer. It was good for pupils to stretch their legs after the five-hour coach journey, a pack of friendly stray dogs followed us to the site, one boy got temporarily stuck in mud and we saw a grass snake. So, all in all, this Plan B turned out to be a worthwhile and enjoyable late afternoon activity.

danube delta trip stuck in mud

Stuck in the mud at Site 1

After dinner we were joined by Cristian Mitielu from WWF who gave a talk on the history of the Danube Delta biosphere reserve, its ecology and human impacts. It was fascinating to learn about the drastic changes that occurred within the area during the communist period. Wolves were exterminated by poisoning, land was drained for agriculture and musk rats were introduced from the USA so that they could be hunted for their pelts. Approximately fifteen years ago golden jackals began to appear in the southern regions of the delta, having crossed over from Bulgaria. The jackals have since proliferated and are reported to be having a major negative effect on ground nesting birds. Reintroducing wolves has been tabled as a possible solution to the jackal problem but this has been met with resistance from locals due to the wolf’s “reputation from fairytales”. There have been a couple of unreported sightings of wolves in the far north of the reserve so perhaps a natural reintroduction is taking place. This might also help reduce the number of feral horses that have exploded in population and is consequently preventing the regeneration of trees.

Pupils paid attention to these insights for the full hour and asked lots of great specification-relevant questions at the end which were answered expertly by Cristian. It always a positive experience for pupils to hear about real-life examples from experts working within the field rather than just their subject teacher – it adds weight to the content and makes for deeper learning.

Day 2

Breakfast at 7.00am and most of the students were punctual, followed by a 40-minute bus journey to Tulcea to meet Mihai Baciu for a slow boat tour of the delta’s tributaries. Just before we set off, I noticed that one of the stray dogs that joined us yesterday had been lying in the road since 6.45am and it was now an hour later. Phil, our science technician, was at hand to investigate and sadly shift the body into some nearby bushes before any of the students saw. Phil is a great example of how important support staff are, regularly going the extra mile like this.

Mihai Baciu is a bird guide, guidebook author and a speaker of German, French, English and Romanian. I put the keener half of the group on his boat with me, his enthusiasm for the biodiversity of the delta unwavering for the four hours we were out with him for. A former ranger and bylaw enforcement officer of ten years, he even stopped alongside a group of fishermen to tell them to pick up their plastic waste – a great example to the students. A few of the students’ interest wavered after a couple of hours, though they were happy enough to relax on the hull of boat and perk up when we spotted something interesting. Some of the more notable species included White-tailed eagle, lesser-spotted eagle, European pond turtle, marsh harrier, hobby, Dalmatian pelican, white stork, osprey and otter. Not bad for four hours in October! Next time I would have a break after two hours so pupils could take a rest from being on high-alert and refresh themselves with drinks and a snack.

danube delta trip European pond turtle

European pond turtle basking in the sunlight

After a late lunch back at the education centre where we were staying, pupils completed geography past paper questions and those who did not do Geography had some free time. Later on students visited what was supposed to be a meandering river site to collect some abiotic data but sadly since last year’s visit the water had been redirected into a straight channel between farmland and the vegetation cut right back. What a depressing state. I took the non-geographer biologists for a walk and we found a patch of field margin half a kilometer away that had been left to grow wild where we saw a grass snake and a few silver-studded blue butterfly but on the whole it was pretty grim. The wind was blowing what remained of the dry soil into our eyes and plastic litter dominated the landscape. Still, this gave us lots to talk about in terms of the impacts of intensive farming practices on soil erosion and wildlife populations which led into an interesting discussion about EU subsidies such as CAP.

Day 3

Day three was geography dominated, with a shoreline study that wasn’t relevant to the biology syllabus. So, I took my four non-geographers for a walk through the sand dunes where we saw a hare, swans with signets, a pair of little grebe and a hunting marsh harrier. I didn’t push discussion, nor ask for any written exercise to be completed or data collected. Sometimes it’s better to allow students just to enjoy being outside exploring and make up their own minds, whilst the teacher remains on hand to answer any questions or point out something interesting now and again.

Conclusion

On the whole this was a successful trip; the students were well behaved and enjoyed an intensive variety of learning experiences. The main change I would make next year is the time that we visit. Apparently the mosquitos in June make fieldwork unbearable and I certainly don’t want to put pupils off outdoor learning so perhaps end of April or first week in May would be best. The main benefit being that this is peak migration season so pupils will see colourful bee-eater, European roller and kingfisher amongst much more. The only obstacle to this option is that this is a Year 10 trip and a few pupils will be doing early entry mathematics and languages GCSE examinations around this time or very shortly afterwards. Still, it is only three days away and if we can avoid a direct clash with exams I believe it will be worth it. Getting outdoors for a short time will help de-stress pupils and we could even set aside a couple of hours per day for supervised revision – although I imagine this might be a hard sell to the maths and languages departments!

I have recommended Mihai Bacui before as a wildlife guide for anyone wishing to visit the Danube delta in Romania in a piece I wrote about my recce trip in April, but here is his website again https://www.chettusia.com/

 

Baneasa Forest Litter Pick

litter pick

Full bin bags await collection by the roadside

Lazy, entitled, selfish, addicted to social media. These are terms commonly used in tabloid newspapers to describe the typical teenager in 2017.

Several joggers and dog-walkers passing through a popular patch of Baneasa Forest during late afternoon-early evening of Friday 29th October witnessed a scene that flew straight in the face of this perception. 26 pupils aged between 11 and 17 years-old volunteered three hours of their time to pick up and bag litter strewn throughout the forest edge. The number of pupils would have been even higher, but most of Year 10 were away hiking and camping out in the Carpathians as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award, among bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar. How the Countryside Alliance would protest, but don’t get me started!

After a brief plea during weekly assembly and a PowerPoint slide in daily notices, the parent permission slips came flowing in. Perhaps it was the image of a hedgehog caught up in plastic packaging that swung it. This was certainly not a compulsory after-school activity, nor was it competitive, nor pushed particularly hard by staff. The kids who signed up just wanted to make a positive impact on a small patch of local woodland because it was a good thing to do.

On the subject of social media addiction, I saw three pupils using their mobile phones during the three hours we were at the site. One girl was playing music quietly out of her pocket whilst hard at work in the bracken, so no problem there. Another called her mum to pick her up to attend a medical appointment, also fine. In fact, next time you hear the phrase ‘man up’, think of this thirteen year old girl still resiliently giving two hours of her time after a full day at school to pick up litter in cold weather, despite being ill. The third was a boy who just couldn’t help himself but quickly put the phone away upon request. I was reliably informed by the Head of English that the boy was of great help within a splinter group after this. Oh, and I caught myself on my phone tweeting a live update – Not a good model for behaviour and why didn’t I just wait until after the pick was over? Silly on my part.

I was felt real pride, admiration and gratitude watching how hard the students worked; Year 6 and 7 children carrying industrial bin bags laden with plastic and dumped building materials that must have weighed nearly as much as themselves! We collected 79 bags worth of rubbish in total (plus a toilet cistern), beating last year’s result by four bags. There were no grumbles, just laughter and hard work. Pupils worked right up to the very end save for a well-deserved water and tea break. The final result was magnificent – an area of forest edge approximately 0.5km2 turned from a dumping ground dotted with piles of empty beer cans, DVD cases and PVC window frames, to pristine habitat for hedgehogs, deer and wild boar. Pupils were briefed beforehand on what to do in the very unlikely event that they saw a wild boar. Alas we did not see any boar, though I was able to point out out where they had been foraging, which the pupils enjoyed.

Most of us could probably do with spending less time on social media, but it isn’t children walking 100m into the forest to dump building waste; it is adults. Thankfully it looks like enough of the next generation are prepared to clean up our mess and not repeat the same mistakes, offering hope for the future.

Year 10 Trip to Vacaresti Nature Park

vacaresti kids

Vacaresti Nature Park has received a lot of international attention over the past couple of years, with feature articles in National Geographic and The Guardian. Prince Charles visited on 30th of March, guided by members of the Vacaresti Nature Park Association, where he planted a white poplar tree. Vacaresti area was a thriving urban settlement until 1986 when Nicholae Ceausescu had the area bulldozed to make way for a vanity project (one of many) – a lake topped with a huge fountain that he and his wife Elena could enjoy. The project hit numerous failures and was finally abandoned after the revolution against the communist regime in 1989. For years the site lay abandoned, fenced off and able to grow wild. In May 2016 the site was officially granted nature park status.

Spanning 183 hectares and located just 4km away from Bucharest city centre, this natural gem is home to over one hundred species of bird, including ferruginous duck, marsh harrier, willow warbler and common cuckoo (we heard two calling). There is a family of five otters, a species indicator for high water quality. I could go on but suffice to say Vacaresti is brimming with biodiversity.

I got in touch with Vlad, official biologist at Vacaresti, a few months ago on the off chance that he might be available to take a group of thirty Year 10 geography and biology students around the site during the first day of their annual trips week. He was happy to do so and offered to take them up to the 17th floor office observatory where he gave a talk on the history and importance of the site. Vlad by his own admition is used to talking to primary-age pupils but his presentation was very interesting and gave a great personal insight into the process of turning this once concrete mass into a thriving biological hotspot. Next year, I will ask him to come to our school a week before we visit to save time, having described the biology syllabus and how it links with our planned fieldwork to him, detail I was too brief on this time around.

Students spent a total of an hour and half carrying out field work, a lot less than we had originally planned but it was probably for the best as the temperature hit 30oC. Split into groups of three, students sampled areas around one of the smaller lakes using quadrating techniques learned the week before in our rewilding zone, cautiously throwing the 1m2 behind their heads to avoid bias. Later in the classroom we talked about how using a grid over a map and random number generator to choose co-ordinates would have been more reliable.  Each student received a laminated pamphlet with pictures of common European plants, although Google seemed the preferable source for identification, not least because so many species were missing from the guide.

Each student drew an enlarged sketch of an invertebrate or wildflower, as they will have to in the alternative to practical examination next year from a black-and-white photograph. Pupils mainly drew from pictures taken on their mobile phones, my favourite being of a Southern damselfly parasitised by seven symmetrically arranged mites – one in the middle and six either side. The drawing is worth four marks out of forty in Paper 6 which is worth 20% of the total score (Paper 6 is one of three papers students will sit, the multiple choice and structured answer papers being worth 30% and 50% respectively), so it doesn’t carry major weight but it is four marks in the bank if perfected. Other choices of drawing included a mystery species of red-spotted ladybird and morning glory.

Some of the students had to power through their aversion to creepy crawlies, a common dislike that I find doesn’t become a significant hindrance if not given too much attention, but a couple of the girls seemed more than a just bit squeamish and I must admit I felt really quite sorry for them around the sheer volume of bees, spiders, beetles and damselflies. Nevertheless they persevered and I hope that they will feel more comfortable around bugs in future.

The view from the 14th floor observatory was spectacular and linked in with the GCSE Geography requirement to draw site plan sketches but next time we need to get into the field quicker, with a break in the shade of a tree to top up on water and sunscreen. Overall, a successful trip that needs some tweaking.

A 3D-printed Homo naledi skull!

H. naledi

Homo naledi has caused a lot of excitement and intrigue in palaeoanthropology and evolutionary biology since its discovery in 2013 by Lee Berger and his team in South Africa. This hominid had many of the characteristics we normally associate with humanoid species that lived around 2 million years ago, having a small brain and curved fingers. But recent analysis has concluded that the fossils could be as young as 200,000 years old – placing it at approximately the same time as early Homo sapiens. So rather than being an ancestor of modern humans, we might surmise that these individuals overlapped with the appearance of our first H. sapiens ancestors. It is not too unreasonable to assume that our appearance might have played a significant part in the extinction of this relic species, given that so many other extinctions coincide with the appearance of modern man.

I have wanted to get my hands on a few casts of humanoid species for years but have always found them too expensive to justify given the small amount of human evolution content typically covered by students in secondary school science curricula and syllabi. Luckily, the discoverers of H. naledi made the fossil scans publicly available, going against the field’s normal habit of protecting the blue prints whilst they carry out tests and so on. I looked up the codes and forwarded them to our tech guy who duly set out to print what resulted in a beautifully detailed H. naledi skull cast. Twenty four hours later I was face to face with Nigel, Nora or whatever the students decide to name him/her.

Surprisingly small yet still recognisibly human-like in form, the cast has made an excellent addition to the biology classroom shelf alongside a model of a double helix and a fox skull found in nearby Baneasa forest. Students love visual aids and will enjoy exploring the skull without having to worry too much about being careful. It took a few hours to print and cost the equivalent of less than five pounds. Obviously the 3D printer was expensive and should be taken into consideration for total cost but now I know a bit more about this amazing technology I will be on the look-out for the codes to print similarly interesting artifacts. Perhaps we will print more bones and get students to assemble the parts. That would be very cool.

Long-eared Owlet in School!

owlet 1

Owls are nesting opposite the Science Garden! The discovery could not have come at a better time. Poor weather meant I had an hour to alter my lesson plan before Birding Club showed up for their weekly after school activity. An English teacher brought me a photograph of an owlet during a Year 8 lesson. I sent a member of Bird Club in the lesson to investigate. This boy loves wildlife and was delighted to get away from physics questions for ten minutes. He struggles with reading and writing so his recent ecology test score did not reflect the wealth of knowledge he can call upon at the drop of a hat, from naming frog species to describing predator-prey interactions. He has extra time and a scribe for tests but we still have a lot of progress to make before his grades begin to reflect his ability.

We tried to keep the location of the owlet secret to avoid disturbance but by the time Birding Club arrived at the scene, a handful of maintenance staff had gathered. Some were pulling on branches to get a better look and taking flash photographs right up close to the bird. I dispersed them in as polite a manner as possible and a whole school email was sent out in English and Romanian asking for people to keep their distance.

Research from my Birding Club members told us that the owlet is a long-eared,  exhibiting a behaviour known as branching. This is when offspring leave the nest before being able to fly, taking up residence in a nearby branch to spread predation risk. The students were delighted with the bird, showing real concern for its welfare and interest in finding out more about its biology. We located another chick and an adult, perched side-by-side high up in an adjacent pine tree. One of the boys rushed off to grab his sketch book, coming up with a skillful drawing in less than five minutes. I love seeing a different side to students. It’s one of the main joys of running an extra-curricular activity, the less formal structure allowing pupils to express their individual personalities more freely.

We decided to keep knowledge of the location of the other owls within Birding Club to avoid any more disturbances. The boys offered keep watch over the area during break and lunch, thinking up elaborate tales to tell people so they didn’t pass through, including the beautifully simple “Don’t go down there, it smells”. Luckily this morning I found the owlet in a much higher branch in different tree so this wasn’t necessary. Seeing the boys observing the bird completely transfixed, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit envious. I like to believe I feel just as excited by wildlife experiences as I did when I was their age, trying to avoid exaggerating or romanticing childhood events. I was indeed enthralled by the owlet, having never seen a long-eared up close, but looking at the delight on the boys’ faces made me realise I am now harder to please. I either need to build a time machine or see a wild wolf to feel as they did. I am in the right country to see wolves, so I can put the time machine on hold.

On a less positive note, I put a photo of the bird (taken from a sensible distance) on to the school’s daily notices with a plea to keep away from it. Apparently one Year 10 boy asked his form tutor “Why don’t they just kill it?” assuming the owlet must be dangerous. He will be visiting Vacaresti nature reserve with me next month so that will provide a good opportunity to work on his attitude.

owlet 2

A Talk on Rewilding Europe

wisent image

A couple of months ago as part of a Science Week programme, our school welcomed Adrian Hagatis from WWF Romania who came in to talk to a group of thirty students about the work he has been doing in partnership with Rewilding Europe. Adrian drove for three hours to give the talk at no fee, which focused on examples of rewilding in Romania. The talk was well prepared, informative and pitched at an appropriate level. Most of the students in attendance study Biology GCSE or A – level, save for a few keen Key Stage 3 pupils, so it was relevant to the ecology and conservation units that form part of their respective courses. More than this, the talk gave students an impression of the amazing wildlife found within their country of residence and some of the challenges they face. I think too often when reading conservation news and, to a lesser extent, biology syllabi content we are left feeling hopeless at the plight of threatened species.

Adrian’s talk was optimistic, largely focused on the solutions to some of the problems facing species in Romania today, from sturgeon to bison. This left pupils feeling positive but at the same time acutely aware of what they stand to lose as Romanian, European or global citizens without significant action. From reading between the lines of the feedback I received, pupils enjoyed listening to an expert working in the field who could give insights into real examples beyond what a teacher in the classroom could ordinarily tell them!

The school made a donation to WWF Romania to show our appreciation and I have spoken to members of their education department about building a long-term relationship that will involve Sixth Form students going to visit European bison release sites. Two of my Year 12 biologists were particularly inspired by the talk, staying behind to ask Adrian questions about back-breeding eurochs and his opinions on mammoth cloning. He dealt with the questions in a sensitive matter-of-fact way that satisfied the pupils’ curiosity until we had to call it time for next period. I must make sure a trip is planned to take place before this time next year when these pupils will be sitting their final A2 exams.

Given that a lot of our pupils are from powerful, influential Romanian families I hope a few of them took home the message and raised awareness in parents. Perhaps it will shape some of the students’ own decision making after they land or inherit powerful positions themselves. Here’s hoping.

Book Review – The Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies

the cuckoo

I was inspired to pick up this book after seeing a rufous female common cuckoo on my recent trip to the Danube Delta and listening to an enjoyable interview with Nick Davies on The Life Scientific podcast during a hair-raising drive home through an unseasonal blizzard.

Davies is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Cambridge and has studied cuckoos on Wicken Fen since 1985 (the year of my birth, pleasingly). The Cuckoo is a mixture really of Davies’ memoirs as a field ecologist and the science behind brood parasitism. He describes how his experiments have led to interesting findings about cuckoo evolution and the arms race they are engaged in with their hosts. He describes the functions behind aspects of cuckoo morphology and why some specialist sub-species are better at mimicking host eggs than others, this largely being due to the amount of time that the host species has been under significant selective pressure to reject odd-looking eggs. He draws upon lots of fascinating examples of other parasitic bird species and non-parasitic cuckoos from around the world from Japan to West Africa. Davies makes the very valid point that perhaps we should regard UK cuckoos as being an African species given that they spend twice as long living next to lowland gorillas than alongside cattle in Britain! One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the explanation as to why cuckoos roughly resemble sparrow hawks, particularly the presence of barring, having not previously noticed the similarity myself.

Davies’ accessible, clear style of writing reminded me of first reading The Selfish Gene in my second year of university. I remember feeling as though what seemed like lots of stiff, fusty facts suddenly fit neatly together into a beautiful and exciting overarching concept. Before reading The Cuckoo I thought – “Cuckoos. They’re brood parasites that overwinter in Africa”. Reading The Cuckoo, I have learnt that there is a lot more to them!

Davies cites the work of Richard Dawkins and John Krebs a few times in the book which gives a good refresher on the ideas of kin selection. In chapter nine Davies claims to have disproved Dawkins and Krebs’ suggestion that cuckoo chicks rely on manipulation (as opposed to deception at the adult stage) to trick the host species into feeding it. Dawkins and Krebs likened the urges of a reed warbler, for example, to feed any begging mouth within its nest to the compulsion of a drug addict to get their next fix. Davies tells us that his findings show reed warblers will readily accept the chicks of other species besides the cuckoo, such as dunnock, and thus the drug analogy is wrong. Now, perhaps an analogy is not the most robust of ways to present a scientific idea but I think Dawkins and Krebs’ holds firm. The cuckoo chick is manipulating the reed warblers’ instinct, insofar as it is taking advantage of the host’s inability to resit feeding a gaping mouth within its nest, even if dunnocks are not doing so as a life-history trait. I can’t help but think deception would be the wrong word to describe the cuckoo chick’s behaviour because the reed warbler does not necessarily believe the cuckoo is its own genetic offspring but it might simply be so full of hormones that it can’t resist the urge to provide it with food. Davies describes how even now when observing in the field he is perplexed by the sight of a reed warber feeding a cuckoo chick eight times its own size. Maybe I have misunderstood Davies’ argument. Perhaps Dawkins and Krebs’ are correct in their thinking but should move away from the ‘junkie’ analogy to explain it. See what you think.

The book ends with a reflection on how and why the UK cuckoo population has reduced so drastically over the thirty summers during Davies’ observations – a sombre but unsurprising end. I have heard older family members talking fondly about how the call of a cuckoo was a common sign of spring when they were growing up. It makes sense alongside the figures that I was 31 years old and in Romania by the time I had my first good look at one.

If you are looking for a popular science book that is sufficiently evidence and data loaded to back up statements without requiring regular re-reading of paragraphs (Yes, I am thinking of A Brief History of Time) this is an ideal choice. I read one chapter per night and always looked forward to the next. I’ll be adding The Cuckoo to our school’s library collection in the hope that raising awareness in young readers (15+) makes some small contribution towards reversing that downward trend in cuckoo numbers. 4/5

Birding Club: Week 1 – Identifying Common Species

I have attached PowerPoint slides for the first Bird Club session. Students will receive 12 bird outline templates (6 per page) and coloured pencils. If binoculars can’t be provided by school, eBay or Decathlon are good places to look. Students should bring a small notebook, though this will not be required today.

  1. Ask students what birds they already know. They can discuss in pairs and then feedback to the class. Key questions – What does it look like? Have you seen one before? Where did you see it? Is this bird common? Do you have a name for this bird in your first language?
  2. Teacher runs through some key common species, using RSPB chart.
  3. Students jot down a description of Great Spotted Woodpecker, based on image. They then swap and add to partner’s list. Feedback to teacher and list five common points on board. Encourage correct terminology such as crown and nape.
  4. Students watch 5 minute YouTube video and colour-sketch templates so they have rough images of twelve species. You might have to pause.
  5. Students go outside and use their diagrams to identify species around campus. They can tally what they see.
  6. Class feedback. Key questions including, “Did anybody see anything not on the chart?”
  7. Plenary – Using mini-whiteboards, students write the name of birds shown at the end of the presentation. Pupils are given 30 seconds for each slide, no conferring. Count down from five and all students show answers at the same time.

YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amYUDQDtm9E

PowerPoint slides: Birding Club Week 1