Film Brings Science Home, Highlights Remarkable Backyard Bird

The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco project offers educational resources for use by teachers and students
In addition to the free downloadable film, the Ordinary Extraordinary Junco project offers educational resources for use by teachers and students and is available for screenings at non-profit events or independent theaters. (Image credit:, Indiana University)

This Research in Action article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

A new educational, entertaining and inspirational film, Ordinary Extraordinary Junco: Remarkable Biology from a Backyard Bird, reveals just how much can be learned from the Junco — one of the most common and abundant, yet amazing and diverse, songbirds in North America.

Packaged with complementary educational resources and downloadable from a permanent web portal, this visually beautiful documentary may be shown in screenings or classes, particularly those at the high school and college level.

"Ordinary Extraordinary Junco should be shown in every high school biology classroom," said Jabin Burnworth, a science teacher at Manchester High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. "It is exactly how an educational film should be made."

The film is designed to appeal to conservation and wildlife organizations, researchers, families and individuals — particularly birdwatchers and science, nature and wildlife enthusiasts.

Joining researchers in the lab and field, Ordinary Extraordinary Junco highlights over 100 years of research on the juncos, one of North America's most beloved songbirds and a "star" research subject. Themes include evolution, ecology, animal behavior and the research process.

The film demonstrates that exciting biological processes, and even evolution, happen every day in your own backyard. Just as Darwin's finches in the Galapagos Islands and cichlid fish in Africa show rapid evolutionary diversification, so too does the most abundant and recognizable bird species of North America.

Three types of dark-eyed juncos found across North America. Although they look strikingly different, they can interbreed where their ranges meet, a phenomenon that puzzled early ornithologists but can now be understood with new genetic research tools. (Image credit:, Indiana University)

"Juncos are easily observable by millions of people daily," said Jonathan Atwell, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University who teamed to make the film with distinguished professor of biology Ellen Ketterson. "So depending on where you are, chances are good that you can watch this film and then go see, or hear, a junco on your way to work or school.

"Surprisingly, there's not really a lot of decent quality film and video of this type that's developed to be scientifically accurate and developed with an educational mission," said Atwell. "Your typical wildlife nature 'Animal Planet' or 'Discovery Channel' kinds of programming can be engaging, but the flip side is the oversimplification of science and the anthropomorphic treatment of the animals."

Production of Ordinary Extraordinary Junco was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

The 88-minute film is packaged in eight interconnected modules that can double as stand-alone instructional units on topics as broad as the scientific method, yet as refined as the role hormones play in the evolutionary development of vertebrate social behavior.

Ordinary Extraordinary Junco can be viewed online in its entirety or in any combination of its eight modules, and used with accompanying teaching guides, study questions for students, links to relevant scientific literature and other educational materials.

During production, the film's creators took into account both the National Science Education Standards of the National Research Council and standards of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Benchmarks in Science. The producers will update the films following finalization of the Next Generation Science Standards, currently in development.

Editor's Note: Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Research in Action archive.

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