She was, she said, Bluebird Mother of the Month -- something that she, as a liberated working mother, never ever thought she would be.

But, she surmised, her little Bluebird snuggling against her legs in the icy March and wind, second-grade boys and girls don't get along, so it's okay to have Cub Scouts and other sexually exclusive groups for the seven-year-old set. "I never thought I'd hear myself say that," she said. "But it's true."

A green-skirted Bluebird skipped up to note briefly that she liked one of the boys in her class because he did not act like a boy "He acts like a bunny," she said. "So he's okay."

The sun was eclipsed by a cloud and the trail sloped toward a solitary evergreen in a naked copse. The windchill factor dropped another 10 degrees and the little Bird's hair whipped in the air.

"They were tired of indoor activities," shrugged the Bluebird mother.

The troop halted before a spindly tree.

"Is there poison ivy here?" demanded a tallish Bluebird of Lurrie Pope, the ranger who supervises the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and who was leading the half-mile nature walk.

"No poison ivy," replied Pope, hurrying to point out a persimmon tree.

"Persimmons are the favorite food of the opossum," she said. "If you come to the Nature Center again when it's warmer, you might see the forest floor covered with persimmons. By the next morning they'd be gone. The opossums eat them all in one night.

"Persimmons are bitter with tannic acid. Have you ever tasted a persimmon?"

"Nooo," responded the Bluebirds.

"They taste funny, like acorns. Acorns contain tannic acid which protects the squirrels from internal parasites. That's why squirrels are good to eat."

"Ohhh nooo," gasped the Bluebird mother, moving on, dreaming of a tenderloin thawing Chevy Chase.

"What's that green junk?" demanded the smallest of the flock.

"That's moss," said Pope, grinding down her Smokey-the-Bear hat as the wind tore at its brim. "It's almost like a sponge. It soaks up moisture for the forest." i

"Does poison ivy grow in moss?"

"Not really," said the tireless ranger, stopping before a fallen log.

"Is there poison ivy here?" asked the tallish Bluebird, on tiptoes, peering into a hollow tree stump.

Pope assured her that she'd be more apt to discover a skunk here, munching on squirming grubs living under the leaf mold inside.

As the Nature Center came into view, Pope found herself lecturing on grub life to the Bluebird mother and the troop leader. Little girls aren't much on manners when they're freezing. They made a run for it.

Inside, they crowded at one end of the exhibit area, newly refurbished along with the center's other facilities. The Bluebirds ignored the cases, some already broken since the building reopened in mid-February. "We don't know how some of these work," said one staff member.

Added Pope, "The kids always seem to cluster at this end of the room. We don't know why."

"You know," whispered the Bluebird mother, "I think it was better before. There were more live exhibits."

Suddenly there was shrieking over and above the serenity of the piped-in birdcalls. The Bluebirds mother's daughter ran pellmell into her legs, her face crumpled, "WAAAAH. WAAAAH."

"What in the name of . . ." began Mom.

"It's the big bird up there," explained a fellow trooper, pointing toward Max, the wideeyed barred owl who has been living at the nature center since his accident six years ago.

"Can you say something to reassure her?" said the mother to the ranger.

Pope suggested stroking some of Max's feathers, kept in a mushy plastic container labeled "Feel me, I'm Max."

"Ooohhh, soft," crooned the little girls.

Max peered down wisely, soulfully, from his perch of crooked tree limbs -- also newly renovated and probably a bit uncomfortable. He was likely thinking of the two white mice he would have when the center closed at 5, dinner plans that drew "yuks" and "ughs" from the gathering.

"How old is he?" asked a Bluebird.

"Maybe eight. Maybe 12," said Pope.

"Does he ever go out?" asked another.

"He can't survive outside. He's a lost a wing, you see," explained Pope. "He was hit by a car and his wing was broken. It was so painful, he bit off himself."

One of the youngsters broke into a mournful wail at that. "The poor little owl. Why did they do that?" she sobbed.

"You're really affected by this, aren't you?" asked Pope, who thinks of children as the Nature Center's main audience. "I want to reach them because they are the people who can change things. When they see a bird, we want them to grab a field guide, not a gun or something else to harm the animal."

To further increase kids' environmental IQ, the Center provides 75 film and slide shows upon request. The Bluebirds picked "Residents of Rock Creek Park," a 20-minute slide show of which they viewed half.

"They've got soccer at a quarter of five," said the Bluebird mother to the ranger, asking her to stop the program just after the portion on the nocturnal habits of the flying squirrel.

"Thank the ranger, girls," called the mother.

"Thank you," echoed her flock, fluttering off like leaves in the gusty equinoxal eve.