Hands on for first grade

Jacob Lane · Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Meet Chula, a non-venomous and misunderstood Western Fox Snake whose kind lives among the forests, prairies and farmlands of the American midwest.

Guess what, he’s also a reptile.

“This presentation was ‘Amphibians and Reptiles,’” says Michelle Berns, a member of the Muscatine County Conservation Board for nine years.

She and fellow conservationist Dave Bakke paid a visit to Ms. Heiken’s and Mrs. Polman’s first grade class in the elementary school last week.

During that time they looked at the difference between amphibians and reptiles, which includes a live demonstration of the species for the kids to see and touch.

“The snakes always stand out,” she adds. “I think for some reason a lot of people are afraid of snakes. I'm not sure why but it always seems to be the case.”

The docile fox snake isn’t deadly, but it does mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating its tail. This has led to some misunderstandings between the human race.

The two conservationists, who teach environmental education to residents all over Muscatine County, brought a variety of critters into the classroom.

That included a Gray Tree Frog, an American Toad, a Tiger Salamander, a Painted Turtle, a Fox Snake and and the always popular and brightly colored Corn Snake.

The different species of native animals from around the area elicited many kinds of responses from the students, as you can imagine.

“Our children show a varied reaction to the animals,” says Mrs. Polman. “From wanting to overly love them to being scared of being within an inch of them.”

But one thing always holds true, they’re excited when Mrs. Bern’s visits.

“We usually announce that we will have an awesome presentation tomorrow and the children immediately ask if Mrs. Berns is coming,” adds Polman. 

The first grade sets up a visit from the conservationists every year, which fits into the the school’s curriculum. The kids are told a day before, and boy do they get excited.

“Last year we presented to over 12,000 people of all ages, and over 600 programs,” says Berns. “We work with three districts, Wilton, West Liberty, and Muscatine, and many other retirement homes, libraries, and other groups.”

“The kids love the live animal programs. Adults do too!” she adds. “The kids showed how excited they were when we brought out the first animal.”

The Gray Tree Frog has the ability to camouflage itself from gray to green. It’s a tiny little thing that varies from one to two inches in length.

This particular tree brought in to the class was named Leo. Other names: Elvis the American toad, Tubs the salamander, and Myrtle the painted turtle. 

The point of the programs is to spread the word about nature in Iowa, including its many species of flora, fauna, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and so on.

Believe it or not, the corn state is bustling with life.

According to Iowa State University, an estimated 206 species of birds nest in the state while 200 more species pass through en route to breeding ranges up north.

There are 80 species of mammals, 70 species of reptiles and amphibians and variety of ecosystems in which wildlife thrives.

What the students saw from Berns and Bakke was only small sampling of what the state, and Muscatine County, has to offer.

However, Mrs. Polman likes to get the first grade involved with other aspects of wild life and nature.

“My class started a worm farm at the beginning of the year and it is a great success,” she says. “I find that many of our kids are not experiencing nature as I did as a child, so I try to bring as much as I can to my kids.”

But what about those animals brought in by the conservationists? They may be native to the county, but where exactly do they come from?

Well, first of all it takes special permits to even have the sort of wild life collection that they do over at the nature center located in Muscatine on Cedar Street.

“The fox snake was confiscated from someone who kept it illegally and the corn snake was hatched in captivity,” says Berns.

“Our raptors that we use in education programs are all birds that have been rehabbed but cannot fly due to accidents,” she adds.

A lot of the creatures and critters they show-off have a special story. But in the end, it’s about getting one singular message across to children and adults alike. Berns wants to spread…

“Just to get an appreciation for all creatures! Even snakes! They are all very important parts of nature,” she says.
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