GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Not many high schoolers double as nature guides or animal rehabilitation specialists, but that’s a good description of a senior at Northview High School in Grand Rapids.
Calder Burton is already a bit of an expert in flora and fauna. As his guidance counselor explained, he has outpaced the programs they offer at school.
“He has essentially maxed out of our curriculum in several departments. (Burton) is currently taking his third dual enrollment course through Grand Valley State University,” said Kasey Hagler, Burton’s counselor.
Burton’s living room is full of cages and other materials used for helping various animals, which friends and strangers frequently bring to him when the animals are hurt or need a home. He knows so much about nature because he has learned hands-on, going on long hikes and looking up information about everything he encounters — from plants, bees, to owls or other birds.
Most parents might be upset if their son or daughter dug up the backyard to put in a Koi pond without asking. But that’s the kind of thing that Shannon Burton has come to expect. It happened over the summer when Burton was bored one day.
“I started digging at 9 a.m. and I finished at midnight. (My mom) wasn’t home when I started digging, and then after it’s done there’s really nothing you can do,” Calder Burton said with a smile.
The lesson he learned from this project had nothing to do with getting permission. Instead, he learned about barred owls. They live in the woods nearby and have a taste for fish.
“(The owls) bring the babies to the pond. The babies like to swim in the pond, and they ate the Koi.
After that, I didn’t really know what to do with the pond, so I made it into a frog pond,” he said.
Burton is rarely alone on those hikes, though the company is often unexpected. He becomes an impromptu nature guide for those he encounters along the paths.
“I ended up with a group of like 10 or so people who were following me on a hike because they wanted to know what the things were,” he described of hike earlier in the year. “That happens a lot when I’m on hiking trails and stuff where people want to know what everything is.”
The pandemic put a stop to these interactions with other people, including the time he used to spend at camps teaching kids about nature. So, Burton found a way to continue his hikes online. He created the Facebook page Nature Walks with Calder and has been sharing short videos for the last several months.
“I started just filming videos on a natural history topic or a cool plant or something I saw while I was hiking. That’s what we’re still doing now. I shared videos with the moths and butterflies that I raised during the summer,” he said.
From the bees he encounters in the gardens at Calvin College to the plants they pollinate, Calder’s knowledge seems endless. As far as charging for one of his nature tours is concerned, his position is clear.
“I don’t think so. It’s helpful for people to learn, they should know all of this stuff”, he said.
Burton wants to go into conservation and is weighing his options at several different schools, including Michigan State University. He has two animals at home right now that have interesting background stories, including a type of box turtle that is considered extremely endangered in the wild.
The turtle is 78 years old and lived 40 of those years in a shallow box with little-to-no light.
“This isn’t how they’re supposed to look,” Burton said, pointing to the curved shell and small size. “Now, he’s eating a proper diet and has gotten a lot of color back.”
He continued, explaining various facets of where these turtles typically live, what they should eat and how you should care for them in captivity.
Burton ended up with him after a local teacher retired and left him in the classroom. The principal brought him to the pet store and Burton brought him home.
At 78 years old, he’s still only a middle-aged turtle.
“We don’t necessarily know how long they live but some of the oldest recorded ones in the wild are 150 years old. They can get older, I assume,” he said.
If that’s true, Burton, who hopes to preserve what’s in nature for the future will already be passing down his knowledge and legacy for generations to come.