Teacher’s hummingbird garden to provide natural haven

Sandra Meinke
Reflections Writer

Naomi Brown, a seventh-grade science teacher at Baines Middle School in Fort Bend Independent School District, is well on her way to creating a hummingbird garden for the school. A summer trip to Arizona funded by the Fund for Teachers Fellowship Program provided Brown with the encouragement and information she needed to begin the project.

This won’t be the first time Brown, a self-described nature lover, has established an ecologically friendly garden on a Fort Bend ISD campus. While teaching science at First Colony Middle School several years ago, Brown became interested in the monarch butterfly, which passes through the Houston area each year during its migration. With help from students and community members and by devoting two summers of her personal time, she created a butterfly garden at the school. For Brown, the study of hummingbirds and gardens that attract them was a natural progression from the butterfly garden.

“As a science teacher, I was always interested in migration patterns. Where we live on the Gulf Coast is a wonderful geographical area for northern and southern migrations,” Brown said.

When she found out about the Fund for Teachers Fellowship Program, which offers competitive grants for teachers in the Houston area, she couldn’t wait to apply. The FTFP gives fellowships for up to $5,s000 to qualified teachers who must present a proposal and budget.

Brown chose to use her money to take a three-week trip to southeastern Arizona because it is a hummingbird migratory hot spot.

“That part of the U.S. is one of the most biologically diverse areas in America. Fourteen species of hummingbirds go through there,” Brown said. “We only get the ruby-throated hummingbird in Houston. I wanted to experience, see and be involved in a big migration.”

Armed with information about hummingbird migrations and habitats, Brown came back to Houston excited about what she had learned.

“I had the unique experience of working with the University of Arizona and the Nature Conservancy, and they provided a lot of information about creating a hummingbird garden,” she said. She divided her time between studying the ecology and banding hummingbirds to track migration routes.

“My interest was in the way the (humming)birds pollinate plants down there. It was a totally new environment for me,” she said. “That region has four deserts and two mountain ranges. Summer is monsoon season there.”

Brown worked and studied in the Huachuca Mountains, where the cooler weather attracts a variety of birds, plants, insects and animals. It rained every day she was there.

“I hiked a lot. I did a tremendous amount of photography. I was involved with banding hummingbirds with the University of Arizona. Hopefully the birds will be caught at some other point on the migration path and some information about their path can be tracked,” she said.

Her garden project will begin by introducing the subject of hummingbirds and their migratory patterns in the classroom. She returned from Arizona with several hummingbird feeders that now are hung at various points around the school. The feeders already are attracting the attention of both students and hummingbirds.

“Kids today are very disenfranchised from the natural world.” Brown said. “Just getting them excited about natural events is a big deal. Awareness is huge. We teach ecology in seventh grade. This (project) is a springboard for teaching about the relationship between plants, animals and humans.”

Prior to starting the garden, Brown will have her students research what types of plants attract the birds. She said the school has a courtyard that will be used for the garden. David Yaffie, principal of Baines Middle School and a former science teacher, is very supportive of the project.

The garden probably will not be completed this school year. It could take up to three years for the project to fully come together and she hopes to get the community involved.

“We will need donations of soil or plants. We’ll need someone to come out with a back-end loader and dig holes for an afternoon,” she said.

Brown said it takes a tremendous amount of work to put a project like this together. The first step is to hook her seventh graders into the project and put them to work researching and learning some of the same information Brown learned during the summer.

“The experience of going to Arizona provided a springboard for the idea that we really can do this here,” Brown said. “Any time we can get kids and the community to be aware of the natural world, it turns them on to science.”