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These Forsyth County elementary students found their playground swings claimed by a protected bird
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A killdeer bird sits on its nest at the Johns Creek Elementary School playground on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2019. - photo by Ben Hendren

Coming back from winter break, the students of Johns Creek Elementary School discovered that an unusual new visitor had taken up residence on their playground, making a home for its young in the woodchips under a row of swings.

According to fifth-grade teacher Suzanne Pitz, a small distinctly white-and-black-striped bird called a Killdeer has nested on the grounds of the school with a clutch of speckled eggs, offering excitement and an educational opportunity to students and staff at the perfect time.

“The students were just working on a zoology unit,” Pitz said. “They had just been reading books for a week specifically on birds … and had the exact background knowledge to understand some of the factors of the situation.”

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Suzanne Pitz, a fifth-grade teacher at Johns Creek Elementary School, looks through a bird field guide book with students on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2019. - photo by Ben Hendren

Pitz said that when they first saw the bird hopping around the playground, they were worried that it was injured or in trouble, but they quickly discovered that the bird’s “broken wing dance” was a clever ruse that the species uses to lure predators away from its nest.

“The kids were adamant that we do whatever we could to make sure that this bird is protected,” she said.  “Well, we went out with the students and did some additional research and we found out, this is a protected species because of the 1918 American Migratory Bird Act.”

Moving the nest was not an option, so the staff of Johns Creek Elementary roped off the majority of their playground to give the Killdeer some room to live and care for its eggs.

But recess isn’t canceled for their students. Instead of swings and slides, Pitz said the students spend their recess happily watching the Killdeer and its mate and use other playground spaces for their fun.

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A Johns Creek Elementary fifth-grader uses binoculars to watch a killdeer bird that's nested on the school playground on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2019. - photo by Ben Hendren

“They’ve gladly given up their swings for her and they are very, very excited every day out on the playground to see her when she is out looking for food,” Pitz said.

She said that because they are actually studying birds, zoology and ecosystems, they often use the bird as a teaching experience for the kids outside of the classroom.

On Wednesday afternoon, a group of kindergarteners and fifth-graders went out to the playground before recess to check on the Killdeer and make sure that the caution tape was still up. Some students talked with Pitz and kindergarten teacher Jori Anna Gibson about the nests, feet and feathers of different species of birds. Other students took turns reading Pitz’s bird field guides and looking through binoculars.

After Wednesday’s expedition, fifth-graders Elena Newton and Lydia King both said that they were initially puzzled by the bird but have since come to love seeing it out in the woodchips and are hoping to see its chicks hatch in the spring.

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Johns Creek Elementary School has used the visit of a killdeer bird that has nested on the school playground as an educational experience for students. - photo by Ben Hendren

"We were thinking, 'What, where, why, what?’” King said, laughing. “Usually I see some red cardinals, usually some sparrows, in my back yard. But that one, that one is not usual.”

“It was really cool that the bird came to our school, that's really awesome," Newton said. “I love the black stripe against its chest. I think that looks really pretty.”

Both said that the experience has been way different than seeing it in a book or watching a movie about it would have been.

“It's really cool that we get experience with it in person,” Newton said.