I had a lovely day today working with members of the West Texas A&M University chapter of The Wildlife Society at a Boy Scouts event focusing on wildlife education. Myself and several other students traveled to a local Boy Scouts campground for a family camping event to talk about several species of wildlife, how to identify them, and why they are important. We had booths on reptiles and amphibians, birds, and mammals, and we were able to share information with the help of recorded bird calls, skins and skulls of several carnivore, ungulate, birds, and amphibians, turtle shells, and two live ambassador snakes. We also talked about track identification skills and how to have respectful wildlife encounters.
The scouts had so much fun! It was encouraging to see what the young boys already knew about wildlife, whether from family experience or direct interaction with wildlife. With almost 100 students visiting our booths throughout the afternoon, it was refreshing and comical to count the times a group of boys yelled "ooooooh!" at one of the booths. Popular items at this event included the two-foot long skull of a Nile crocodile, several of the skins, the bird calls, and the six foot eastern indigo snake. The scouts were respectful, asked interesting questions, and really enjoyed learning about the wildlife in their backyard and in Texas. My favorite bit of the day was showing scouts how to identify animal tracks, particularly the simple ways to distinguish between bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, and domestic dogs.
Here are a few photo moments from the day:
One of our ambassador snakes was a five year old eastern indigo snake, a threatened species that ranges throughout the eastern United States and prefers woodland habitat with burrows and debris piles. Indigos can get up to 8 feet long (this guy is just over 6 feet) and have extremely powerful jaws. Indigo snakes are nonvenomous and this ambassador was very calm with so many Scouts wanting to learn about him. He is the biggest snake I have worked with!
Indigo snakes are all black, with very large scales, though sometimes they express a bit of red coloring under the chin. This guy took a break with wildlife student Korey. Isn't he gorgeous?
Steve is an officer of our chapter of The Wildlife Society and is very knowledgeable about birds. Here is is discussing skull morphology and how it affects diet in bird species. Look how interested these Scouts are!
Scouts were fascinated with the size of the Nile crocodile skull and the tiny size of its brain case. Traci, a fellow wildlife student, and I also talked to them about several turtle species using specimen shells. You can see the shell of a Texas tortoise in the photo as well as the skin of a prairie rattlesnake.
Jessica is one of our snake experts and graciously brought her indigo and king snake to the event. Here she is teaching scouts and adults about the eastern indigo, snake morphology, and how to properly handle snakes.
Mule deer skull. Just chilling.
I loved talking about the different wildlife species on this table. The Scouts really enjoyed being able to "handle" all the different species and view them up close. Caroline is a graduate student in wildlife biology at West Texas A&M and is studying pronghorns. She loves talking about coat adaptations and helping kids identify wildlife species with skins and skulls. Jere is an Eagle Scout who enjoys scout events and education and provided lots of laughs throughout the day.
Michelle is an undergrad who has worked with me in the field trapping mesocarnivores on several occasions. Here she is talking to Scouts about the California King Snake she is holding.
These are just a few photo examples of a really fun day. The comical moment of the day, however, came during my discussion with an 8 year old on bears. He wanted to know what to do if he ever saw one. We talked about backing away and not running, being alert in bear country, and what to do when face to face with an animal. I went over the safety basics and how human responses should be different based on whether the animal is alone, with cubs, or guarding a meal, but it became increasingly difficult to not burst out laughing when we got to the differences between the American black bear and the grizzly bear. For starters, this kid looked like the perfect combination of Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone" and Ralphie from "A Christmas Story." I say this because it is important to visualize this young man's response when I explained that the grizzly bear's taxonomic name is
Ursos arctos horribilis
and is so named for his horrible attitude. I explained that while black bears usually run away when you yell at and get "big" with them due to fear, a grizzly bear will usually become angry at such a confrontation and humans are often attacked, sometimes killed, from the physical mauling of such an impressive animal. I described these differences with hand gestures and what I assumed were non-scary smiles, but by the time I was finished, the young Scout was standing rigidly in front of me with ever-growing eyes the size of saucers, his mouth hanging open, with literally no words or response. When I asked him if that answered his question, his eyes got even larger, his draw dropped lower, and the silence went on... and then he suddenly took off as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
I obviously should be a teller of scary stories around campfires. Or a backcountry safety trainer in griz country.
Aside from the child I may or may not have instilled a healthy fear of bears in, it was a really wonderful day and I am so happy we were able to spend time with young ambassadors and supporters of wildlife. We plan to develop more educational content in the future for the Boy Scouts in our area, as the future of wildlife management and conservation depends on the education of young enthusiasts.