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Investigative Case - "European Starlings and Woopeckers"

Developed for Lifelines Online by Arthur G. Nonhof. (www.bioquest.org/lifelines/)
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students will explore niche competition and population ecology by developing plans for species density studies. They will also develop a plan to re-establish a species (the woodpecker) in an area where there are almost none left.

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Learning Goals

Students should be able to:
  • identify birds in the field area
  • develop plans to study bird species density in the field
  • develop long-term solutions to re-establish bird species in an area
  • present their findings to the class in oral and written form

Context for Use

This case is appropriate for entry level Environment Science, Biology or Ecology course. The case can include fieldwork or be classroom and lab based.

Considering Class Size - Different types of objectives can be accomplished by implementing case-based learning in different sized classes.

How Do Investigative Cases Fit into Courses?- What issues need to be taken into account before introducing cases to your class?

Teaching Materials

News Release: September 1997
Parks and Wildlife sell refuge acres to developer

Despite protests from environmental groups, the Kansas Department of Parks and Wildlife has decided to go ahead with the sale of riparian woodland acres in Pratt County. Wichita developer, Sam Morrison, hopes that the transaction will end a fifteen month long legal battle between the state and environmental groups over the Arkansas River site. The development, to be known as "River View", will be subdivided into two and three acre lots with water access. Previously the land was part of the state owned Cottonwood Wildlife Refuge, known for its biodiversity of birds and one of the last virgin stands of timber in the county. Sewer lines and road construction will begin next month. Says Morrison, "We have no intention of cutting down all the trees however the woodland will be fragmented". The gallery forest has been a favorite spot for local birders and an outdoor classroom for area schools.

News Release: June 1999
Local Audubon group notes recent decline in woodpeckers

Audubon chapter president Dorothy Waugh reports that various woodpecker species are unusually scarce or absent this summer. This conclusion is based on reports by club members who have monitored the species diversity in the area through the spring and summer. Attention has focused on the continued development of the River View housing area started in 1997. Says Waugh, "When the River View riparian zone was a refuge it provided a niche for healthy numbers of woodpeckers typical for that climax habitat. Downy, Hairy, and Red-headed Woodpeckers were always well represented. We would even find a few of the rare Lewis' Woodpecker's nesting in old snags". Weekly counts since early May have documented only three pairs of Downy Woodpeckers and none others. However species of other birds have remained at carrying capacity with the non-endemic European Starling increasing.

News Release: September 1999
Feedlot owners complain of grain loss to birds

Local feedlot owners have noted a sharp increase in numbers of blackbirds among their cattle pens. While blackbird flocks are a common occurrence within feedlots due to the availability of feed, the large late summer increase has caught managers off guard. Says Ray Crockett of Poky Feeders; "In the past we just put up with them and accepted the grain loss but this year we'll have to do something different. Killing them all would be the quickest solution, but I don't know if these birds are protected by federal law. They just ignore the plastic owls and air guns that have worked in the past." Crockett estimates there are over 10,000 birds scattered over the feedlot at any one time and most are starlings.

Are there any possible long-term solutions to restoring woodpecker numbers? Show why these could be successful.

Potential Activities to Use with the Case
  • Devise a plan to collect data on nest cavities, woodpeckers, and starling density along the Arkansas River.
  • Devise a plan to determine starling numbers at a local feedlot.
  • Examine various museum study skins of birds displayed for field identification.

Case Analysis Worksheet - A helpful aid in guiding students through the use of cases.

Teaching Notes and Tips

How To Use Investigative Cases with Examples - This area of the site lays out the phases Investigative Case Based Learning and key strategies for using it in your class.

Preparing Students for Cases and Collaborative Learning - Hints and advice on how to introduce cases into your class.


Suggested Student Products for use in Assessment of Learning
  1. Each group will construct a poster board presentation focusing on the above case. Then they will present their poster board to the class as an oral report of their research with all members taking part. This display should include the following elements:
    • Stated problem
    • Hypothesis
    • Procedure
    • Data, including at least one graph or data table
    • Results
    • Conclusion
  2. Each group member will submit a written paper of no less than one page focusing on one aspect of this research that was especially meaningful to you and explain why.
  3. Each student will submit three essay questions relating to this case to be used for unit test.

In Addition:
  • Students should be evaluated within their group on a daily basis as to participation.
  • One member of the group may be quizzed at the close of each daily session.
  • Poster board and oral presentation will be evaluated by the entire class based upon specific criteria.
  • Exam will be given at the end of the unit.
Assessing the Use of Investigative Cases - There are many informal opportunities to assess the performances of students who use investigative cases.

Student Survey on Using the Case (Word 24 kB) Note: You may find it helpful to use this form to gather information from students if you wish to see how they view learning with cases.

References and Resources

  • Regional bird identification guides
  • Thompson, M. and Ely, C. (1999). Birds of Kansas. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
  • Busby, W. and Zimmerman, J. (2001). Kansas Breeding Bird Atlas. Lawrence, KS: Univeristy Press of Kansas.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Breeding Bird Survey Data (Internet)
  • Journal articles: The Auk; The Wilson Bulletin; J.of Field Ornithology
  • Ecology Textbooks with emphasis on niche and population dynamics
  • Bent, A. (1992). Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Audubon Magazine
  • Thayer Birding Software
  • County Extension Publications
  • Trade Magazines: Kansas Stockman; Farm Journal
  • Videos: Local footage of starlings and woodpeckers
  • Interviews: feedlot manager; local bird club member; county extension agent


Biology:Ecology:Principles, Environmental Science:Ecosystems:Habitats, Restoration/Reclamation, Biology:Ecology:Habitats:Terrestrial

Resource Type

Assessments:Other Assessment Type, Peer Assessment, Assessments, Activities:Project

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Ready for Use

Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

Biosphere:Ecology, Biosphere


Human Dimensions/Resources, Biosphere


Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Ecology, Environmental Science