Habitat that!

Habitat that!

Author aims to change 4th-graders' thinking by helping to build local home for wildlife

SAVOY — On his business card, Tony McGuigan touts his publishing and habitat consulting company as "making a better world one animal habitat at a time."

On Friday, the California-based habitat landscaper and author shared that vision with Carrie Busey Elementary School fourth-graders as he helped Elizabeth Slifer's class build a wildlife habitat area.

Slifer said the visit fit in perfectly with the Champaign schools' fourth-grade science curriculum. In their first unit of the year, students studied woodlands and forests, and they are now studying zoology.

"We're building habitat to attract animals in their natural settings," Slifer said. "This isn't a one-day project; it's going to go on all year long."

It was McGuigan's first school habitat garden and his first prairie habitat. He believes that habitats can affect the world in dramatic ways.

"If we have more biodiversity, we can use insects to actually protect our crops and feed people better," he said.

As an example of the importance of biodiversity, McGuigan said when an animal like a salamander dies, bacteria on it go back into the soil. The organisms that cause the salamander to decompose ultimately recycle its matter as part of the ecosystem.

"It's all about making better soil," he said. "If you don't have good soil, you're not going to get seeds to feed your birds. The bird poop will nutrify the soil."

McGuigan noted that in the book "Insects and Gardens," author Eric Grissell says that every time a bird lands in a garden, it leave protozoa, which prey on algae, bacteria and microfungi.

"They're hopping through there, inoculating the garden," McGuigan said.

University of Illinois research scientist James Nardi was responsible for bringing McGuigan to the area.

"His book ('Life in the Soil') inspired me to write my book ('Habitat It and They Will Come')," McGuigan said.

Nardi invited McGuigan to Illinois to speak to the Champaign County Audobon Society on Thursday night at the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana. The organization suggested McGuigan give an assembly at a local school, but he wanted to install a habitat garden instead.

"I wanted the kids to touch the soil because that's what makes it real to them," McGuigan said.

After the project is complete, McGuigan wants students to remember the various components of the habitat and to think about the kinds of native wildlife that are living within it. He also wants them to change the way they think about organisms.

"There aren't good insects and bad insects," he said.

McGuigan is also a psychiatric nurse.

"Part of why I'm so in love with this field is our society is so out of touch with nature," he said.

McGuigan thinks that people are becoming too disconnected from nature and that a lot of stress-related problems could be solved if people spent more time in nature.

He pointed to a study claiming that people carry around 10,000 species of bacteria on and in their bodies.

"We are more bacteria than we are human," McGuigan said. "I want people to be close to nature. My next book will be about how important it is to have soil under your nails."

The visitor's message seemed to resonate with students.

"This is fun," fourth-grader Bella Barragan exclaimed. "This is the best day ever."

Dashaun Lawson even asked Slifer if when his class returned to the classroom, they could write about what they just learned.

"It's like digging for treasure," Lawson said as he dug a hole for a tree. "We're going to plant trees, and they're going to grow. Animals are going to live inside the trees."

While using a trowel to dig a hole to plant wild quinine in, Janessa Trier talked about what she had learned.

"Whenever a tree falls over, animals will go under and live in the hole the tree left," Trier said.

Slifer has located another dead tree on University of Illinois property that she would like to add to the habitat area. She has received permission to take it if she can get it moved. She invites anyone who can help to contact her at 217-351-3811 or by e-mail at sliferl@champaignschools.org.

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