Bird Obsessions, Community Bonds – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Bird Obsessions, Community Bonds

“Birding is a community endeavor rather than a solitary act,” says Jenna Downs ’20.

In Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander’s first-year seminar “Bird Obsessions: Beauty of Beast,” Downs and her classmates are stepping into the shoes of bird-watchers, conservationists and cultural anthropologists, studying the lives of birds, the motivation behind the people who admire them and the symbolic role birds play in religion and art. And as part of a first-year Learning Community, the students are developing an integrated living-and-learning environment linking academic and out-of-class experiences and developing strong bonds with faculty and fellow students.

“Not only do we read books that look at birding through a scientific lens as well as a humanitarian lens, we get to go out into the world and explore these concepts we read and talk about,” says Downs.

The learning that takes place outside of the classroom – observing the birds and their behavior directly – has helped Alexander Casper ’20 make stronger connections to the material. “Reading the books on birds is vital but it’s hard to appreciate them without actually going out and experiencing them,” he explains.

Like the 35 other first year seminars the Colleges are offering this fall, “Bird Obsessions” is designed for a group of between 13 and 15 students, to allow for intimate discussion, substantive debate and strong community among first-year students and faculty. The students in “Bird Obsessions” are also enrolled in “Topics in Environmental Studies,” which emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of pressing environmental issues that intersect with the readings, theories and methodologies of Deutschlander’s first year seminar. 

As part of the Learning Community, the students participate in field trips, lectures and other special events that encourage them to apply their coursework to environmental challenges. So far, students in Deutschlander’s class have visited the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge as well as several birding spots along Cayuga and Seneca Lake.

Sharing both academic and social experiences, Learning Community students tend to achieve higher grade point averages, make friends quickly and transition into college life smoothly.

Both Downs and Casper note that the friendships they have developed in the Learning Community are an important part of their experience as first-year students.

“We find enjoyment in being able to identify a bird species by certain field marks and calls,” Downs says, reflecting that Deutschlander and “the art of birding” have been able to “draw the students in the class into close-knit friendships. This similar interest in birds is helping to develop strong relationships.”

Deutschlander currently serves as first vice president for the Wilson Ornithological Society, the second oldest and second largest scientific ornithological society in North America. When that appointment concludes, he will serve two years as president. He joined the HWS faculty in 2000 and has served as chair of the Biology Department, the HWS Health Professions Program, and the Colleges’ Committee on Academic Affairs.