The "First Flight" of Virtual Feathered Friends

Among the many hot topics discussed by this spring’s virtual Feathered Friends After-School Birding Club: the differences between the female and male Northern Cardinal—and the source of the pink coloring of flamingos. (Flamingos’ intense pink colors are produced by beta carotene pigments drawn from their diet of algae, larvae, and brine shrimp.) Photo: James Fillmore/Audubon Photography Awards


This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Urban Audubon.

By Danielle Sherman

How do you translate the magical experience of going outdoors to see birds to a virtual space? More important, how do you keep inspiring a love of birds in kids when you can’t be with them in person? These were the questions we at NYC Bird Alliance faced when we set ourselves the task of adapting Chris Cooper’s wildly popular Feathered Friends after-school program at the Bronx’s AmPark Neighborhood School to a virtual setting. Though COVID-19 continues to prevent us from delivering the program in person, we know how crucial it is to get these elementary-school kids excited about birds. Generous donations from participants at last year’s Fall Roost gala made it possible for us to develop a virtual program to do just that.

We knew it would be a challenge to create an engaging virtual program that captured the essence of the original. With help from Chris himself, Board Member César Castillo, Conservation Associate Aurora Crooks, and consultants Dr. Shannon Curley and Ruthie Gold, we got to work. Our team focused on interactivity, engagement, and fun. We decided to pilot the program with AmPark Neighborhood School in the spring, with an eye towards expanding further in the fall.

We kicked things off with AmPark on March 16, with over 30 students eager to learn about birds. With help from our wonderful volunteers Loretta, Erik, Mary Beth, Michele and Jaqui, we’ve been able to provide an interactive experience where every student can get attention. And, boy, are these students eager to learn about birds! From the start, they have been eagerly identifying any bird that pops up on their Zoom screens. They take every opportunity to tell us their favorite bird facts, like why flamingos are pink, or how to tell male from female cardinals. Based on feedback from AmPark staff, it’s clear that for many of these young people, Feathered Friends is a chance to shine. They’re learning all kinds of things: bird anatomy, bird behavior, how to be a good birdwatcher—and they’ve even been able to ask scientists all their burning bird questions. It’s truly been a nonstop bird nerd bonanza at the Virtual Feathered Friends After-School Club.

What does the future hold for our fledgling club? In the short term, we’ll continue to work with the birdy kids at AmPark Neighborhood School, whether it be virtual or in person. We’ll use the lessons learned this spring to improve and expand the program. And hopefully someday soon, we’ll offer Feathered Friends After-School Club to budding birders all around NYC!

Help us expand the Feathered Friends After-School Program across New York City with your donation to NYC Bird Alliance. Learn more