Thoughts on birdwatching with children

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted!! Montessori teacher training is exhausting, and with all the tendonitis/carpal tunnel issues I’ve had from spending hours at the computer every day, the last thing I’ve wanted to do is come home and write more. But, we’ll be done in two weeks, at which point I will be an honest to goodness Montessori guide. I’ve also discovered that I now have a whole new level of responsibility when it comes to blogging. By the time I’m done considering whether what I have to say is going to violate anyone’s privacy or offend anyone that I’ll regret offending, I’m too exhausted to write.

At any rate, last week I had a chance to go birdwatching with about 25 children, ages 6-9. The children had their own teacher with them, and we had a naturalist guide to help us find and identify the birds. As far as I could tell, the children had a wonderful time. They were certainly enthusiastic. However, the entire walk had a bit of a harried feel as the guide rushed us along, often dragging the children away from watching a bird they found interesting, only to drag the children back when she wanted to stop and watch something.

The more I watched this interaction, the more it became apparent to me that our guide was birding like an adult and that this is not how children approach watching birds. For many adult birders, a big part of bird watching is finding as many different species as possible, looking especially for rare birds and “life birds” (ones the watcher has never seen before). For these children though, the excitement lay in finding and successfully identifying familiar birds and watching what those birds are doing. Add to this a lack of basic birding skills, such as using binoculars and navigating a field guide, and I think the children missed out on a lot of potential fun during the trip, even though they had a great time.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to introduce children to the pleasures of bird watching. This is just my brainstormed list and many of the ideas are no-brainers. I’m sure there are experienced birders and experienced teachers who will have more ideas. Please share!

Practice using binoculars before going out in the field. This is definitely a skill, and not a trivial one for a six year old. Learning to find and focus on an object that isn’t flitting around among the trees is probably a good starting point.

Put up a bird feeder near the classroom/house. Learn the regular visitors before going out and trying to identify more birds in the field. At our feeder here, we regularly have cardinals, blue jays, grackles, cowbirds, blackbirds, house finches, nuthatches, chickadees, several kinds of woodpecker, titmice, and at least five kinds of sparrows. That’s a lot of birds to learn without even going outside, and a feeder gives lots of opportunity to really practice studying the birds closely.

Learn how to use a field guide. To some extent, I think this is a skill that has to develop over time. In my experience, to really use a guide successfully, I need to already have a fairly good idea of what I’m looking for. Still, if nothing else, knowing something about the organization and parts of a bird guide would be very helpful. I brought two guides with me on our trip, and they were in use for most of the time we were out. I noticed that the guides were very helpful when the children came and asked me for help looking for something. Either they wanted to see a particular bird, and I helped them find it, or we had a pretty good idea of what we’d seen, and I could direct them to the right section. But when I just gave the children one of the books, they didn’t need to know how to use them. One child told me she’d seen a swallow-tailed kite, which she almost certainly did not see here in Ohio. (I didn’t see the process, so I don’t know if she chose the kite because it looked similar to something she’d seen or if she chose it at random.) Something as simple as instruction on how to use read a range map would have been helpful.

Choose a local bird guide. I brought Birds of Ohio and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds (Eastern Region) with me. Both books were used a great deal, but it was quite apparent that the children had an easier time with the Ohio book, simply because it had fewer birds in it. The Sibley guide may be the bird bible, but it is difficult to use.

Learn just a few birds at a time, learn how to recognize them and learn something about them. I have long had a sort of disgusted fascination with turkey vultures because when I was 10 or so someone told me that they had evolved to eat carrion and so they can eat rotting food that would kill an adult human and they pee on their heads to keep clean. (I have since learned that the second part doesn’t seem to be true: they have bald heads to stay relatively clean after sticking their heads inside animal carcasses and they pee on their legs to increase evaporation and keep cool). Sometime later, someone told me how to tell a flying turkey vulture apart from a flying hawk. The result is that a) these birds are interesting to me because I know something about how they live and how they’re different from other birds and b) I am capable of recognizing them on my own (and c) turkey vultures are gratifyingly gross, a fact that counted for a lot more when I was ten). This is something that seemed to be lacking on our trip. Our guide pointed out many types of birds to the children, but without added information on how to recognize them and how they live, the birds were just temporary curiosities.

Go birding in a small group or have enough experts that each can work with a small group. A lot of learning about birds happens on the fly from listening to a more experienced birder (at least, this is how I’ve learned). With one expert and 25 children, it’s impossible for the guide to know what all the children are seeing or for all the children to see the birds the guide points out.

Conduct a bird survey. Instead of going out and looking for as many species as possible, conduct a count of common species the children know well. On our trip, the children pointed out every robin, blue jay, cardinal, and chickadee they saw, because they knew how to recognize these birds and the birds are easy to find. (They especially like the chickadees, which, in this park, would eat birdseed out of your hand.) Alternatively, go out with the intent to look for a few particular new but likely birds. I suppose this could be frustrating if those birds don’t cooperate by showing up.

Learn about bird families. Knowing something about the different families of birds and how they behave seems to me to be a crucial start for learning about birds. It helps narrow down possibilities enough that a field guide can be used successfully, and besides, just recognizing what family a bird belongs to can be a major success when first learning about birds.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, because I love birds and, although I’m a beginner when it comes to recognizing birds, I’d love to share this interest with children. Still, my goal is to help the children learn what they want to know and to explore independently, so teaching them about birds is no good if they are totally dependent on me to tell them what they’ve seen.

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