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Birds of a feather

Communications students get a lesson in collaboration from Whooping Cranes.

March 17, 2015

Convergent journalism student Jose Rodriguez photographs Sandhill Cranes in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. PHOTO: Sara Hertwig
Convergent journalism student Jose Rodriguez photographs Sandhill Cranes in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. PHOTO: Sara Hertwig

Last week, students from a social documentary class followed the Platte River east, deep into the heart of Nebraska, hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare and endangered bird. The Whooping Crane and its more common cousin, the Sandhill Crane, are the subjects of a class project that has spanned four months and thousands of miles as students track the birds’ migration from Texas to Canada. The project will culminate in May with a 20-minute documentary and supporting story package that can be pitched to local media.

“The whole thing is really an experiment in collaboration,” said instructor Jessica Taves, an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication. “We have students from every facet of communications — writers, photographers and public relations — working together to create something unique.”

One of the advantages of working with a team of 13 has been the chance to divvy up responsibilities. So far, two students traveled to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas to capture footage at the migration’s starting point, and two observed Sandhill Cranes at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge in Southern Colorado. Nebraska was the latest leg of the journey and close enough to bring almost the whole team.

The weekend trip, sponsored and organized by the One World One Water Center, included meeting with experts, interviewing people from the local community, and of course, observing the birds along the river.

The Wood Buffalo-Arkansas flock, which the students are following, is the only self-sustaining population of Whooping Cranes in the wild. In 1941, the flock had dwindled to only 15. Since then, conservation efforts have helped the flock rebound to 300, but the birds are still considered extremely vulnerable to extinction. One of the major themes being explored by the students is the impact that humans have on the birds, in particular, as it relates to their aquatic habitat.

For Sara Hertwig, a junior majoring in convergent journalism, the experience thus far has been one of tremendous learning, both about the cranes and her own skills.

“I am stretching myself,” she said. “So far in my studies I’ve focused mostly on photojournalism, but on this project, I’ve been asked to do video as well. It’s a great learning experience.”

Recently returned from Nebraska, the students are set to begin the next phase of work: trying to put together a multimedia documentary from hundreds of hours of footage. It is an enormous challenge, but one that Taves believes will be well worth it.

“I’m confident the finished product will be great,” she said. “But even more importantly, this will be something the students can put in their portfolios to help them stand out in a competitive field, and it’s an opportunity for collaboration that you just don’t get in other journalism classes, or at other schools.”