FORSYTH — Cooper Wise is a farm kid, whose dad farms in Bethany and whose mom grew up on a farm in Maroa. He raises pigs and cattle for 4H projects in addition to a photography project.
He knows how important pollination is.
“We're learning about new things and I think it's going to be fun to plant stuff, and it's just stuff to learn about,” said Cooper, a third-grader at Maroa-Forsyth Grade School, who took part in a Pheasants Forever event at his school on Tuesday.
The Lincolnland Chapter of Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit conservation organization, organized the field day to introduce the kids to a project designed to promote pollinators, or insects and animals that help plants reproduce. Chapter members paid for and tilled a strip that surrounds the entire school grounds, where they have planted bird, butterfly and bee-friendly native plants to provide nutrition, pollen and cover for a variety of wild things. The kids got to help on Tuesday by planting some seeds, too.
The three-year project will allow kids to watch the plants grow along with them, and chapter member Kirk Cearlock said they'll photograph kindergartners next to the plots annually to show the growth of both kids and native plants. Different areas are devoted to different creatures, with one section just for butterflies and bees, one for doves and quail, and so on.
The project is free to the school, with Pheasants Forever covering costs with a combination of its own funds and a grant from the state, Cearlock said. The organization raises more than $20,000 annually, and devotes 25 percent of that to habitat preservation efforts.
“If you've ever been out in the field during harvest, and you're actually going through and kicking up birds (who were nesting),” Cearlock said. “It's basically to educate the kids and show them what's going to happen over the next couple of years.”
“We do these all over the state and the nation,” said Katie Kauzlarich, Illinois outreach coordinator for Pheasants Forever. “Pollinators are one of the big conservation pushes right now, to give pollinators habitat and general wildlife habitat, to give shelter. We're one of the biggest pollinator organizations out there, which a lot of people don't realize. It's a great way to have kids do hands-on learning. They're not just sitting there getting lectured. They're out there actually doing the planting, so they're going to be invested in what happens to it.”
Kauzlarich actually has beehives at home, but her bees were grouchy on Tuesday and stung her, so she didn't bring any along to the school as she had originally planned to do.
Honeybees are doing a little better, but still threatened, Kauzlarich said, while the biggest threat at the moment is to monarchs. They aren't on the endangered species list this year, but conservationists expect them to be shortly. Native bees are in danger as well. The more food and shelter provided for those pollinators, the less stressed they are and the better chance they have of surviving and reproducing.
Without pollinators, Cearlock said, a lot of humans' food sources will vanish.
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Pheasants Forever set up three stations outdoors at the school to teach kids about natural habitat and the food chain. The first station included the skins of a variety of animals from a squirrel to a coyote, and a volunteer explained the relationship of predator to prey. A second station volunteer talked about pollinators and how they are harmed by lost habitat and food sources, while the third station was where the kids picked up seeds and volunteers helped them plant them into the already-tilled ground.
“We can learn about the bees and their environment and how they live and how we can create a good environment for them to live in,” he said. “We talked about what they need to live and how we can provide that.”
One of the reasons for choosing Maroa-Forsyth Grade School, Cearlock said, is that he is the one who often plows snow from around the school in winter, so he's aware of the amount of open ground surrounding the building and the high winds it experiences. The native plants and trees that Pheasants Forever planted on the campus will provide a wind break, as well as habitat, and a learning opportunity for the students that will get them outdoors, which is important to Cearlock and Pheasants Forever.
Principal Carrie Reynolds, whom Cearlock jokingly called his “partner in crime” in getting the project started, said she's pleased that the kids will benefit from the group's generosity.
“I just think it's a great opportunity for the students to be able to learn and to bring education outside,” she said.
The school serves 525 students and will be the largest Illinois outreach to support pollinators, Cearlock said. “I either had to go big or go home.”