I’m going to start this post with a really honest declaration – I am the worst resource for birding. BUT, I have an amazing TEAM and am so thrilled Jackie is willing to share her tips – I’ll be using them with my own children (who are way more interested in birds than I am)! Check it out and then be sure to follow Jackie too! ~Amelia
Close your eyes and picture someone really into birding.
I think I know who popped in your head. Someone older, quiet, stalking in the woods for hours with just their NPR pledge drive hat and binoculars peeking above a bush.
A five year old running through the parking lot after a bunch of gulls yelling, “BIRDS!!” probably doesn’t come to mind.
But birding can be a wonderful hobby for children, and a great supplement to any outdoor time, whether its a long hike or a quick walk in your neighborhood. Even if you barely know the difference between an eagle and a turkey, you can still teach your kids about birding. Here are some tips to get you started.
Start with the basics
You don’t need to hide in the bushes for hours searching for an elusive yellow-headed blackbird. In fact, looking for something hard to find is a great way to get your kid to declare this new hobby is “BOR-ing!” Next time you go for a walk in your neighborhood, simply count how many different types of birds you see.
Once you start looking, you will be surprised about how many seem to come out of the wood work. Crows, magpies, robins, pigeons, sparrows, gulls are all great first birds to start with, especially for young children. Being aware of your surroundings is the most important first step, much more important than knowing the difference between a Cassie and a House finch.
Talk about what you see
You won’t be able to identify every bird you come across. Birds vary, just like humans, and sometimes you will just have no idea what you are looking at, even with the help of an extensive bird guide. That’s fine.
But don’t waste the opportunity to observe it. Ask your child, “What is the bird doing? Flying or hopping on the ground? Is it big, or little? What colors does it have? Is its beak long or short? Is it eating? Are there other birds like it, or is it alone? Is it quiet, or singing?”
Experienced birders rely on more than just pictures to identify birds they come across. Noticing physical details is important, but so are behaviors. For example, while crows and ravens look virtually identical, only ravens soar.
If you practice observing a variety of features and behaviors (whether or not they lead you to an answer!), identification will get easier over time.
Get out your phone
While being outdoors is normally a great time to put technology aside, your phone can also be a great resource in bird identification. The Merlin Bird ID app by Cornell University. Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab by Cornell University
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/merlin-bird-id-by-cornell-lab/id773457673?mt=8 is a great resource for beginning birders. By answering a few simple questions (what color was the bird, what was it doing) you can easily narrow down your search.
The app will also give you some basic descriptions of behaviors and migratory patterns, as well as picture of birds in different stages. Birds in fall might look very different than they did in the spring, and an app can give you far more info than a paper guide. As a bonus, whenever you identify a bird, the data will get sent back to the Cornell Ornithology Lab to help scientists see migration and other patterns world wide.
Pick a spot to visit year round
Every season brings its own birding excitement. In spring, we see birds building their nests. In summer, we enjoy bright colors and a variety of southern species. In the fall, we can keep an eye out for bright cardinals and snowy owls. And, of course, every fall we all turn our heads up to watch as geese head south for the winter.
If you have a favorite hike, pond, or lake, visit it throughout the year. Talk to your child about how the seasons have changed and note how some of the birds you see are the same year round, and some are different. Come up with different ideas about why some birds stay and others go. You don’t need to know all of the answers. Getting your kid into the habit of observing and asking questions is the best foundation for a scientifically curious mind.
Find other birders
Look to see if there is a local chapter of the Audubon Society near you. If there is, find out if they host local bird walks or talks. Unfortunately, some chapter events like evening talks may be after bedtime or otherwise difficult with young children. But most birders are excited to share their knowledge with younger generations and welcome new faces.
Prepare to see the world with new perspective
Have you ever asked a four year old his favorite dinosaur, only for the answer to be something you’ve never heard of? Young children are born learners, with minds begging to master something. They also have an amazing ability see details that grownups frequently overlook.
Birding can give children an outlet for their scientific curiosity as well as their need to master a subject. And the more we all learn about the environment around us, the more we will feel connected it, helping to build a lifelong relationship to the outdoors.
Jackie is a writer and a mom of a five year old, three year old and a baby living in Helena, MT. She thought that hiking might help tame her children’s wild spirits, and co-leads a Hike it Baby branch. All that hiking only made her crew wilder, but in a good way. Before kids she enjoyed reading, knitting and baking, but now she enjoys making it to bedtime.
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