Shared joy and wonder abound as the small birds were recovered from the nearly invisible mist nets. Black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, house finches, black-headed grosbeaks, and downy woodpeckers all flew into the hands of the children who were part of the Hatchery Helpers volunteer program.
Killing two birds with one stone is an age old aphorism that faced Director Carlos Martinez at the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives. While the children were only banding and releasing their birds, they were metaphorically killing others. The beautifully manicured grounds were in need of constant attention, red squirrels were invading the exhibits and stashing their winter stores in unwanted locations, youth living near the hatchery seemed oblivious or indifferent to the hatchery's existence, and recruitment of new outdoor professionals was on the decline. The youth volunteer program piloted at the D.C. Booth seems to be addressing all of those concerns.
Young people under the direction of an adult supervisor volunteer their mornings for five weeks each summer. They perform needed repairs, enjoy stimulating activities, learn history, are educated on the environment and fisheries conservation, and undertake projects that tax the resources of more mature volunteers. Students ages 10 to 13 banded birds, marked fish, groomed trails, reclaimed and developed attractions, pulled weeds, and polished statues and solar collectors. They handle animals, too: they live-trapped and removed unwanted squirrels--and one skunk. There's more, the youngsters held garbage collection contests, read conservation literature, took scientific, historic, and educational tours, learned fly tying and fly fishing, and practiced what they learned on the water.
Dr. Kent "KC" Jensen from South Dakota State University graciously gave his time to set up his nets for a bird banding session. The best time to capture the small birds is early morning, so the nets had to be set up around 6:30 AM. This was about two hours earlier than the children normally arrived and their supervisor had told them he would be there if they wanted to come early. He didn't hold out much hope that they would rouse themselves from bed or persuade their parents to get up that early before work. He was wrong.
They pedaled themselves in or cajoled their moms for a ride. Soon almost a dozen kids were running from each capture sight to the next to see what new feathered treasure they had acquired.
Fewer than a dozen volunteers are permitted to use the nets in South Dakota. Imagine your grandmother's hair net only 6 foot high and 100 feet long suspended between two driven steel poles. Dr. Jensen presented and explained the use of all of his equipment. He had numbered bands that matched the diameter of each species' leg, special pliers to firmly attach each leg band, and a journal that included as much detail as he could gather. He weighed each individual bird captured and noted their gender and age. He demonstrated how to identify the males from the females and how to distinguish between adult and immature birds. The kids gathered around him as if he were Santa and each piece of information a present.
We caught less than 10 birds, but each one went from his hands into the hand of a child to be released. In more than 35 years, and more than 7,500 banded birds, he has only had two nongame birds recaptured. To the doctor's wonder and that of the children, three of the birds we caught that morning had already been banded. He cautiously instructed them in his art, how to release without inflicting damage or adding stress. Many of the nuthatches sat in wonder on the children's hands long after they had been opened. "Why don't they fly away? I'm not holding them. Why do they still sit on my hand when they could leave?"
How do you spark a child's desire? How do you encourage a love for nature and things wild within the confines of a city park? Spearfish and all of the cities of the Black Hills have an unfair advantage when it comes to cultivating young naturalists. Declining numbers of young people are engaging with the outdoors and their natural world. It was a wonder to watch the sparks in these kids' eyes.
"Now I know what I want to do with the rest of my life," claimed one little girl. It was exactly what the Hatchery Helpers program had hoped to hear.
A group of tourists were visiting the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives. It was in the evening and the staff was gone, but it is still possible to visit the grounds and feed the fish. One of nature's dramas began to unfold before the incredulous and apparently unwilling eyes of the visitors. A mallard duck was taking her newly hatched chicks for their first swim. The hatchery's mammoth brown trout took notice.
Someone dialed 911. The police station is only about four blocks away and I suppose more out of curiosity than anything else, an officer was dispatched. While it might have been interesting to shoot at the big fish as they rose to take down another duckling, I doubt it would have met the strict guidelines for discharging a weapon within city limits.
I heard that story Monday morning at a staff meeting as I prepared to begin teaching a summer session of middle school students who volunteer to work at D.C. Booth. Students range in age from 11 to 13 years old and I was hired to teach them lessons about nature. They spend their mornings for five weeks working to improve the facility and grounds for the more than 160,000 tourists that visit the hatchery each season. Little did I know that two days later, that the drama involving the tourists would repeat itself before the tender eyes of my young lady and gentlemen charges.
On Wednesday the students arrived for their orientation, accompanied by a steady drizzling rain. Despite the inclement weather, the kids were ecstatic to be onsite and were amazed by the amount of wildlife that lives on the grounds of the hatchery.
I unloaded some snacks and the kids were taking a break, when an unfortunate young trout leapt out of the water and landed amid a group of mallard drakes. The ducks spent the next five minutes in a tug-of- war over that small rainbow. I wasn't even aware that mallards ate fish. First one, then another, would grab the trout, and in a waddling sprint, dash away to try and hide his catch. The kids thought it was hilarious to watch and cheered one bird over the others whenever it would grab the prize.
The cheers turned to cries of dismay when a hen wood duck tried to bring her newly hatched clutch through the big rainbow and brown trout pond. Some of these fish weigh in at over 18 pounds. A big brown trout's hooked jaws are lined with teeth. The fish more than made up for the loss of the young trout and soon only half of the ducklings remained. The kids began to cheer the remaining chicks on in their flight to escape. Tears began to flow as more chicks were lost and they pumped their fists in the air when the first little bird made it to a drainage grate and supposed safety.
But the grate proved unsafe for the young birds and soon they were all swept below the water's surface. The duck's frantic calls were drowned out by the cries of the children. Hatchery worker Mitch Adams came to the rescue with a dip net and had four healthy birds rescued to the great relief of my students. But two dazed and sodden chicks looked doomed. They weakly paddled in circles with their heads flopped to the side. One of my students asked, "Can you save them?"
A better naturalist than I would have allowed the lesson of survival to continue, but I raised a blonde, blue-eyed little girl myself and so I gathered the injured chicks up. Though they looked beyond hope, quick warmth and a chance to dry off brought them around. Less than an hour later, revived and cheeping, they rejoined their hen.
Death comes every day. I have a wood duck or two of my own in the freezer. But if given a chance to help wildlife, fewer people move more quickly than hunters and children. Nature's lesson learned; ducks eat fish, fish eat ducks, and people help when they can.
Robert Speirs writes for the Rapid City Journal, teaches high school English,