Birds of Prey make rare visit to Sunnyside

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Students at Sunnyside School near Lethbridge were treated to two true rarities Thursday: a school visit by Birds of Prey Centre co-founder Colin Weir and a spectacular barn owl, seldom seen in southern Alberta.

“This is probably the only school we’ll visit all year,” Weir told students.

The Birds of Prey education and rescue programs are sustained by donations and admissions to the centre in Coaldale, and the organization simply doesn’t have the resources for school visits. Weir said he made the trip especially for Sunnyside Principal Connie Adserballe, whose veterinarian husband, Jacob, is one of the few around willing to take care of wildlife.

Weir and Marianne Durocher, the centre’s education co-ordinator, brought three owls to the school. A tiny burrowing owl kept a watchful eye on the much larger barn owl with its unmistakeable heart-shaped face, and Alberta’s provincial bird, the great horned owl. While the barn owl could make a meal out of the burrowing owl, both would be considered fair game for the great horned owl.

“He’d eat both of those birds if he had the chance,” Weir said.

Students not only had an opportunity to touch the great horned owl, they were treated to owl trivia: the owls grow to full size in just three months; like eagles and falcons, female owls are bigger and stronger than males; and only a single barn owl has been brought to the centre for rescue in 30 years. They’re just not seen here because our winters are too cold.

Adserballe requested the visit to coincide with Sunnyside’s One School, One Book campaign. Students are in the process of reading Farley Mowat’s “Owls in the Family.”

While One School, One Book programs often require families to read a chapter a night, with students answering trivia questions at school to win prizes, Adserballe changed it up. Families are encouraged to finish the book in three weeks but have flexibility to read as their schedules allow. The former Palliser literacy coach wanted to shift student thinking about reading. It’s not something done to win rewards for answering questions correctly. The reward is the reading itself.

“We’re just reading a book as a group,” she said. “At the end of the day, we just want our community to have enjoyed a book together.”

Student Ella Davis says she had read the book before and she’s enjoying it again.

“The book is good,” she said. “I like rereading books. I like how it’s all about the owls.”

Seeing the barn owl and its distinctive heart-shaped face was “great.”

While the reading takes place at home, students and staff are encouraged to have conversations about the book daily at school.

The visit from the Birds of Prey Centre gives students an opportunity to connect to owls for themselves, just as a young Mowat did when growing up in Saskatoon.

Other activities have included students recommending their favourite books. They’ll also be writing their own personal narratives, in keeping with Mowat’s fine example.

Sunnyside’s One School, One Book concludes next week.