Bird Watching with Children
Terrie Murray is a writer from Portland, Oregon who has a passionate love of wild birds which has led her to a career in travel and nature writing. Born in Southern California and raised in Southeastern Alaska, Terrie also has boundless love of travel. She and her husband Al, who is also an avid birder, have explored Europe, the British Isles, the Middle East, Canada, Mexico, and much of the United States. Top of her destination wish list? A birdwatching trip to Trinidad and Tobago, or possibly the Island of Kauai.
One of my earliest memories is of walking through the forest with my grandmother. Together we identified every tree and flower, and named and admired every bird that sang. As I grew older, we made a game out of our discoveries: two points for a different bird, five for a different animal, and 10 if it was one neither of us had seen before. My interest grew into a passion for bird watching. Grandmother and I continued to exchange notes and accumulate points for over 30 years, until she passed away. As Grandmother taught me, I enjoy teaching children about joys of learning about birds. This is the first in a year-long series of articles on learning about birds. We’ll start now with a very brief introduction to bird watching, and through the year we’ll focus on what is happening as the seasons change.
Children schooled at home can turn this hobby into a fun lesson in natural history and science. The easiest way to learn about birds up-close is to put up a bird feeder. Your feeder can be as simple as a plastic milk jug with the middle cut out, or it can be an elaborate wooden or Plexiglas model purchased at a store.
Different species of birds have different diets. Begin by feeding black oil sunflower seeds, which is the favorite choice for the widest variety of birds. If you choose, you may set out different feeders with millet and suet, which will attract different types of birds. Try to find a spot that is not near shrubs or other hiding places for cats. Birds particularly like feeders hung in trees, because the branches provide perching spots when the birds aren’t actually feeding. Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, hang the feeder in a spot which will allow you to watch them from inside the house. It may take the birds a few weeks to find your feeder and begin to come regularly, but they will come. Try to keep your feeders full and clean, and provide your new friends with a source of fresh water.
Purchase, or check out from the library, a basic bird identification guide, such as The National Geographic Society’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” or Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to Western Birds.” Mr. Peterson has an excellent series of field guides covering all regions and all aspects of nature study. A number of field guides are written especially for children. If your children are very young, you might even want to consider starting with a coloring book or sticker book on birds. Visit a bird watching store, or call your local Audubon Society, and ask for a recommendation for a field guide which is good for the area in which you live. Your Audubon Society might also have a checklist of birds for your area, which will help you locate and identify the birds you can expect to see.
A pair of binoculars will enhance a bird watching expedition and allow easier identification. A good, basic choice for beginners is 7 x 35 power with coated lenses and a central focus. Prices vary widely, from around $50 for beginner models to upwards of $1000 for very technical, advanced models.
While you’re waiting for the birds to discover your new feeder, investigate other resources that may be available. If you live in an area where there is a chapter of the National Audubon Society, they will often have bird watching trips specifically designed for families. Local chapters may publish newsletters which list upcoming classes and report on birds seen in the area during the last month. Stores which specialize in wild bird seed and feeders will often have guided bird watching trips at little or no cost. Check your telephone “yellow pages” under “Birds and Bird Supplies” for a listing of such stores in your area.
For young children, a trip to the local duck pond is a good place to start. The birds are often close, relatively tame, and colorful. If allowed, feed the birds only cracked corn or small amounts of grain. Do not feed them bread, which encourages algae and bacteria to grow in the water and can attract unwanted pests such as rats and gulls, who compete with the ducks for food.
While you are out on bird watching expeditions, try to keep your groups small. Walk slowly and quietly. Although experienced birders wear drab-colored clothing so as to blend in with their surroundings and allow closer approaches to the birds, young children should be encouraged to wear bright colors for safety, so that they will more easily be seen and more easily found if separated from the group. Never disturb birds or their natural habitat, and take particular care not to frighten birds from their nests.
Here are some specific ideas for lessons built around bird study:
(1) Whether at home or in the field, encourage your children to keep a list of what they see. Look up the birds in your field guide and read together about whether they migrate and, of so, what countries they visit when they aren’t in your neighborhood. On a map or a globe, trace their migration routes. Later in the year, talk about where the birds on your list are. Are they nesting in the arctic? Wintering in South America?
(2) Talk with your children about habitats. What kinds of birds live in the water? What kinds live in trees? What kinds forage on the ground? Are their feet shaped differently? Their wings? Their beaks or bills? Talk about how the habitat in which some bird lives affects how they look. Why does a duck that lives in the water look different from a woodpecker that lives in trees?
(3) Let’s call the feeder you hung outside your house “home base.” Have your children keep a list every day of what species of birds they see at home base. If possible, keep the list going for a full year. Note when new birds arrived, and which ones stayed all year. You will find that no matter where you live, you will have some year-round residents and some migrating visitors that will only be around for a few days. Migration patterns will be covered in future articles.
Finally, keep your lessons short, and have fun together. Children don’t need lectures about wildlife conservation every time they go on a field trip. If they learn about the birds and creatures around them, they will begin to care about them, the desire to protect them and preserve their habitat will come more naturally. As my Grandmother shared her love of the natural world with me, so can we share with our children, and the lessons we teach now will continue to be handed down.
BIRD WATCHING WITH CHILDREN: SPRINGTIME
As I write this, in my backyard in Western Oregon it is barely March and still mostly winter: the grass is brown, the trees are bare and the flower beds are empty. If I look closely, though, I can see that the ends of the branches on the apple tree are swelling with leaf and blossom buds. If I listen closely and I can hear something I haven’t heard since last summer: the birds are starting to sing again.
Songs of Spring Why do birds sing? Birds use song to convey lots of different messages, but the main purpose of a bird’s song is to claim breeding territory and attract a mate. Those pretty tunes we hear are actually stern warnings to other birds of the same species. It is almost always the male birds who sing. To other males, he is saying “this is my bush, and you’d better stay away. To females, he is saying “I’m the best bird around, come and see, and maybe we can build a nest here together.” Each species has a recognizable song, with identifiable pitches and tempos. Some are simple, one or two notes, others are very complex and will go on for 15 or 20 seconds, then repeat.
Try listening to birds in your backyard, if you have lots of birds in your neighborhood. If you don't, visit a nearby park where there are lots of trees and bushes. The birds will be there. Have your children pick out two or three recognizable songs that are different from each other. Try to identify the singer by using a bird guide. Your local Audubon Society may have bird watching trips specifically designed to help learn bird songs. Those trips are often scheduled in the springtime when birds are singing the most. Even very young children will be able to hear the difference between, for example, a crow and a chickadee, and in time they will be able to identify several species by ear alone. For children who are vision-impaired, learning to identify birds by ear is particularly rewarding.
You might want to check your public library to see if there are field recordings of bird songs which might help your children identify the less common species. Houghton Mifflin publishes an audio series which includes Walton and Lawson’s Backyard Bird Song, which is a simple introduction to common birds, as well as Birding by Ear, a more advanced course. They are in cassette format. There are even sets of videotapes out now which can help teach bird song both by ear and by sight. To help your child more easily recognize individual bird songs, you might use simple memory cues as a way to identify the song: the black-capped chickadee, which is common across the country, sings “chicka-dee-dee-dee”; the male red-winged blackbird sings “pumkin-EAT-er.” It is best if your child comes up with his or her own way to describe the song.
Remember in January when I suggested your children keep a list of birds they saw? Have your children record notes about bird songs and, in their own words, describe how the song sounds for their bird diary. That way it will be easier to remember the song and identify it later.
Migration: As spring progresses, particularly in April and May throughout the United States, you will start seeing different birds than you have been seeing during the winter. If you're in the Southwest, Southern California or Southeast, birds are already moving through. Some may already be nesting. In every region there will be birds which are considered residents, and those which are considered migrants. If you have been keeping a list of birds you see in your yard, as we discussed in the last edition, you will notice that your list is starting to grow. A lot of birds, especially songbirds and waterfowl, migrate throughout the year. They will spend winters in the warm climates of Central and South America and will migrate north to nest and bear young. Nesting species will differ all across the United States. Some areas will have more than others, but every state and nearly every habitat has a bird that has chosen that habitat as its special home. One amazing migrant, the Arctic Tern, winters in the Southern Hemisphere and migrates all the way to the Arctic coast to breed! If you are starting to see new birds in your neighborhood, check your bird guide to find out where they spent the winter and have your children follow their migration pattern on a globe or map to get an idea for how far they have traveled to get there. Some of the birds migrating through are simply stopping for food and rest. Others will be setting up housekeeping. We’ll look at them next.
Nesting: Birds may nest in or on your house, in your backyard, or in a nearby park. Barn Swallows will build nests of mud under the eaves of houses or inside barns. Belted Kingfishers build their nests by burrowing into river or pond banks. Woodpeckers build their nests in holes in trees. The tiny Bushtit builds a nest that looks like a hanging sock and may be as long as a loaf of bread, constructed with dried leaves, mosses and lichens glued together with spider webs!
Children (and adults, too!) can learn a lot about birds by watching them build a nest and take care of their eggs. They must, however, be taught to be very careful not to disturb the nest or the young. Bird parents may be frightened off the nest by too much attention, and their young will starve. Watch from an area well away from the nest, or perhaps from within a “blind” created by tree branches or camouflage material strung over a large umbrella. Watch birds carefully. If you see a bird carrying a stick or a bit of grass it is probably constructing a nest. Quietly, slowly, try to follow it. Older children should be encouraged to keep a daily journal of your observations describing the activities at the nest. They can make notes on feeding habits, daily routines, and changes in appearance of the young. If you have a camera with a telephoto lens which your child can operate, have them take photographs of the nest and young at different stages of development to provide highlights to their bird diaries. Don't use a flash, it might frighten the birds.
In the fall, after you are certain that the breeding season is over and the young have left the nest permanently, you can study an abandoned nest to get a really close-up view of how the nest is constructed. Have your child try to duplicate the nest construction with similar materials (twigs, grass, or mud) so that they will gain an appreciation for how difficult this simple-appearing task really is! Be aware that even if the nest is abandoned for this year, it shouldn’t be removed from the tree or bush. Nests can be infested with bugs and/or germs. More importantly, these old nests are sometimes used as shelter by other species during the colder months, and in some cases nests are reused by their owners for several years or the abandoned nest of one bird may be taken over by a different bird the following year. If you live in an area where leaves fall from the trees so that nests are easy to spot, have your child make a “map” of nests in your area. Return in the spring to see if the nests have been re-occupied, and add that information to your bird diary.
Bird Houses: If you’d like to encourage birds to nest in your yard, go to the Public Library, your local Audubon Society or to a local wild bird supply shop and read about constructing bird houses for birds which commonly nest in your area. Bird houses can be constructed from materials as simple as a milk carton or popsicle sticks, or can be as fancy as your child’s imagination can design. Different species have different requirements in the size of the house and the size of the opening, so a little research will pay off here. Many birds can be encouraged to nest in houses, including bluebirds, chickadees, warblers, wrens, swallows, woodpeckers and owls. If you have kept a list of birds you saw during the winter months, you can be fairly sure that those birds are year-long residents and will nest in your area. Pick out one or two, and then you (or your older child) can research the specific bird-house requirements for that particular species, and an appropriate bird house can be constructed as a craft project. You might want to consider putting out a small net bag or bowl of nesting material such as yarn and string scraps or bits of straw to help the nest builders in their construction. Once the bird house is in place, it is natural for your child to want to follow all the action by peering into the house. Remind your child that even in your yard in a bird house you constructed yourself, it is still important to keep your distance once the nest is occupied. If you have a cat, try to keep your cat indoors during the nesting season. If that isn't possible, make sure your cat is wearing a bell. Many thousands of songbirds are killed every year by domestic house cats, and there really is no fool-proof way to protect nesting birds from a determined cat.
Spring is one of the most rewarding times to study the birds because their cheerful songs and increased activity around the nesting season makes them so interesting to children and adults alike.
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: ADAPTATION
It is June now, and in much of North America parent birds of every type have set up housekeeping and are busily raising their first, or perhaps even their second, brood of chicks. In the April lesson we talked a bit about migration and nesting. This month we’re going to talk about the birds themselves, how they came to get their names and how they came to look like they do. In learning these concepts children may begin to learn about a more complex scientific phenomenon: species adaptation.
For this month’s lesson you’ll need to have a bird identification book that your child can look at. It need not be an expensive, top of the line field guide, but it should have good pictures. I like the National Geographic Society’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America.” The Golden Guide also has a good bird identification book, and Roger Tory Peterson has a whole series of them, including one specifically for children.
Let’s start by looking at some names. Look in the index for a “Spoonbill,” then look at the picture in the book. How do you suppose the Spoonbill got its name? How about a Red-Tailed Hawk, or a Scarlet Tanager? Red-Winged Blackbird or Yellow-Headed Blackbird? These are examples of birds whose names are miniature descriptions of what the bird looks like. Have your child look through the index to find a couple of other miniature-descriptions.
Some birds are named for the sounds they make. What kind of sound does a Hummingbird make? What do you suppose a Catbird sounds like? How about a Bobwhite or Whip-poor-will?
Birds can also be named for where they live. A Marsh Wren lives in a Marsh. A Burrowing Owl gets its name because it builds nests by burrowing in the ground. Where do you suppose a Mountain Bluebird can be found?
Have your child look closer at the index and see if he/she can find examples of birds who are named for what they eat. How about an Acorn Woodpecker, or a Nuthatch? What do you suppose an Oystercatcher has for lunch? See if they can find other examples.
Just for fun, you could have your child draw a picture of an imaginary bird and then give it a name, using one or more of the foregoing naming methods. How about a Red-Billed Anteater? Or a Green-Footed Snood? Let your child’s imagination run wild.
Have your child look more closely at the pictures in the identification guide. Some birds are big, some are small. Some have webbed feet, some don’t. Some have huge bills, like pelicans, and some have tiny beaks, like chickadees. All of these are examples of ways that each species of birds has learned to “adapt” to its environment. What would happen if all birds looked exactly alike, lived in the same place and all ate the same thing? Eventually they would run out of food!
Let’s start by looking at feet. Birds like Grouse, Partridges and Pheasants have thick toes with sharp “claws” on the end that allow them to scratch the ground and uncover food. A Parrot has two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward, allowing them to hold a nut or seed tight in their “fist” so they can eat nuts and seeds. An Osprey has very strong, very sharp, curved “talons” that allow it to grasp slippery prey, like fish. Some birds, like ducks and geese, don’t use their feet for eating, but they do need them for swimming. Have your child find a picture of a duck. How does a duck’s feet help it to swim? Have your child find other pictures of birds and talk about what their feet allow them to do which another bird cannot do.
Let’s look at bills and beaks. A pelican has webbed feet, and a great big bill. What do you suppose a pelican eats? A woodpecker has a sharp, strong bill and a long, long tongue. You know a woodpecker likes to drill holes in trees. What do you suppose he eats? How about a Hummingbird?
What other kinds of bills are there? Read about what they eat and talk about how their bills or beaks have “adapted” to their diet.
What has your child learned about adaptation so far? Have your child draw a picture of himself/herself. Have them look at their feet, fingers, arms, and mouth. What do all of these things allow your child to do that another species cannot? What makes it possible for your child to eat a banana, and why can’t a duck? What makes it possible for your child to catch a ball? Why can’t a woodpecker? And what can birds do that your child cannot?
Take a walk through the neighborhood park, or simply in your backyard, and look at the birds that you see. Talk about what they might eat, where they live, and what it is about them that allows them to do what they do. When you get back home, have your child draw a picture of some of the birds you saw, focusing on the things that are specific to that particular bird. Finally, have your child turn on his or her imagination again and draw some imaginary birds. What does your bird eat? Does it walk or swim? What color is it, and why? And what would you name it? These things are all a part of “adaptation.”
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: BEHAVIOR STUDY
The study of the behavior of birds is one of the most rewarding aspects of birdwatching, but it isn't one that is regularly practiced by the casual birdwatcher who concentrates only on identifying species and checking them off on their list. To really study the behavior of birds you need to watch a single species for a long period of time, and preferably over a series of days. Studying the behavior of birds is an ideal science and nature project for your home schooled children.
Most behavior is associated with nesting and raising a family. Birds of a particular species will all nest at about the same time, and each species has identifiable behaviors involving attracting and courting a mate, defending territory, building a nest and raising their young. Because their behaviors are associated with nesting they will be most active during the spring and summer, but you'll find that some birds will continue "practicing" all year round.
Let's look at three species of birds which you will probably be able to find anywhere in the country: Pigeons, Mallards and Robins.
PIGEONS: Pigeons are great for studying bird behavior for several reasons. They are accustomed to having people around so they can be approached and studied up close, there are flocks of pigeons in most city parks, and in general they do not migrate, staying in roughly the same area year round. So take your child to a park where you know there are pigeons around, sit on a bench, and watch what goes on.
In the park you're in what would best be described as the pigeon's "feeding ground." The pigeons probably don't nest in the park, they prefer to nest high above the ground where there are dark cubbyholes, like churches or elaborate plasterwork on high buildings or the crossbeams of bridges. There are still several behaviors you should be able to identify, since much of the pigeon's "courtship" occurs on the feeding ground. For example, watch birds entering or leaving the feeding area. Are they clapping their wings together as they fly? This behavior is done by males, as a way for them to advertise their sexual maturity. Males may also lift their heads very high and run for short distances with their tales dragging the ground. They're showing off for their mates.
If you see a pigeon pick up a twig and fly off with it, watch where it flies. The bird is probably nesting. At the nest site, you'll observe a whole different set of behaviors between the mates as they prepare their nest.
The "territory" of different birds varies greatly, from a few inches to a few miles. Pigeons only defend the territory immediately adjacent to their nest site. Their nests will be about 8 inches long and is built of short, stiff twigs. Once a nesting site is chosen by the pair, the male will fly off and pick up a twig, shaking it around and dropping it to test it for stiffness. If he finds one he likes, he'll fly back to the female and lay it in front of her. She'll pick it up and place it into the nest underneath her. This will continue until the nest is built. Once the nest is completed the female will lay her eggs, normally two. The male and the female will take turns incubating the eggs, but generally only the female remains on the nest at night and the male will roost elsewhere. Incubation will probably last about 18 days. When the eggs hatch, the parents will first feed their chicks regurgitated food then will gradually increase their diet to include more solid foods such as caterpillars and fruits. The checks will remain in the nest for only about 10 days, then they'll be ready to join the feeding flocks on their own. Within a day or two after the chicks leave the nest they will be totally independent, and the parents will be preparing for the next brood. Pigeons may raise 2?3 broods of chicks during the breeding season.
MALLARD: After you and your child have watched pigeons for awhile, take your notebook to the duck pond and let's watch the Mallard Ducks for awhile.
Mallards are unusual in that their most active courtship starts in the fall and continues right on to spring. Watch them closely. One of the most surprising discoveries you'll make is that the male and females make entirely different sounds. Only the females can make the "quacking" sound. The male makes a short whistle?call and a more nasal "rhaeb" sound.
Interestingly, the territory that the male Mallard defends does not include the nest, although it is usually close to it. The territory usually includes open water for feeding, dense cover for protection and an open area of land called a "loafing area" for preening and resting.
The most obvious sign that a pair has formed is by watching the female, who will swim behind her mate while repeatedly flicking her bill over one side of her body and "quacking" a series of short, percussive notes. The male will respond by turning the back of his head toward the female and swim slowly away, inviting her to follow. Watch for this behavior, as it is extremely common.
When it comes to nesting, the female Mallard is definitely in charge. It is she who explores nesting sites while the male waits nearby. Nest searching may take a week or more. The nest is built entirely by the female, and she is not nearly so particular about it as the pigeons are. The nest will probably just be a collection of leaves, grasses and reeds, with soft downy feathers from her breast added to the lining which she draws up over the nest any time she leaves. She will lay an average of 8?10 eggs, one per day until the clutch is complete. During this time she will feed only once or twice a day. The male is not involved in the incubation, in fact the female does not want him around. Incubation will take about 23 days. The newly hatched chicks will stay in the nest for the first day, and the second day the female will lead them to water where they bathe, preen and feed with her for most of the next 50?60 days. The female and her young will be very intolerant of other females and their broods, sometimes pecking them hard or even drowning them if they come too close. Because the incubation and fledgling periods are so long, Mallards raise only one brood of chicks per year.
Most Mallards are migratory, flying south to the Gulf Coast in the fall and back to the northern United States and Canada in the spring, but in many areas Mallards will remain north throughout winter in areas where there is sufficient food and some open water.
ROBIN: Finally, let's take a look at that favorite backyard bird, the American Robin. Our friend the Robin has several interesting behaviors. For example, in nearly all species of birds it is the male who sings, and the male sings to advertise to the female that he is available and would be a suitable mate. The Robin follows this pattern in that only the male sings, but he sings most during the week before its young hatch.
Male robins will begin the nesting season by breaking out of the large winter flocks and choosing territory of their own which they will defend against intruders. Initially the territory will cover about an acre, although it may overlap with the territory of other males. Once the males have attracted mates the areas become smaller, with the final territory covering about 1/3 of an acre. The pair will spend most of their time there, as well as build their nest there. Both the male and female will defend the territory against other Robins of either sex, although neighboring territories might overlap. Males will often return to the same area in successive years.
Robins build their nests on a horizontal limb or building structure anywhere from 5?30 feet high. The nests are constructed out of grasses, with a middle layer of mud. The female does the majority of the nest building, although the male may help bring materials to her for including in the nest. Robins may gather nesting material up to a quarter mile from the nest site. One sure sign of nesting is if you see a Robin with a line of mud across her breast, for she forms the nest by sitting in it and pressing her breast up against the edges.
Once the nest is completed, the female will lay 3?4 eggs. The female does all of the incubating, although during the day her mate will remain nearby and will instantly respond if she gives any calls of alarm. She will generally stay on the nest for 50 minutes out of the hour, then will leave to feed. The male may sometimes feed her on the nest, but generally she leaves to feed herself. Another interesting behavior of Robins is that the male may leave the nesting territory and roost communally with other males somewhere else. He will return to the nesting area again the next morning. Incubation will last 12?14 days. Once hatched, the nestlings are fed by both parents. Robins like to gather their food on lawns, and if they don't eat it immediately, but fly off with it instead, you can be fairly sure they are feeding young in the nest. They will feed the nestlings for anywhere from nine to sixteen days. After that the fledglings will leave the nest and will be primarily cared for by the male for up to 4 more weeks. During the fledgling phase the female has often left to begin nest building and egg laying for her next brood. Robins will raise 2?3 broods during the breeding season.
As you can see, behavior varies greatly between the species of birds. If your child is interesting in studying further, I recommend "A Guide to Bird Behavior," a multi?volume set in the Stokes Nature Guides series published by Little, Brown and Company. Perhaps there are one or two species in your own backyard that would provide excellent subjects to study on a day?by?day basis. As always, remind your children to watch quietly, listen well, take notes and enjoy the amazing diversity of our bird friends.
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: KEEPING LISTS"
Keeping lists of birds you see is a wonderful way to enhance both the educational and the pleasurable aspects of birdwatching. It is fun to look back in my notes and remember the trip I took last April when I saw my first Tufted Duck, or the time I went to California and saw my
first Black Phoebe at the Wildlife Refuge outside of Santa Barbara. I keep several different lists:
A list of all of the birds seen in my backyard, a list of birds seen in various counties of our state, a list of all of the birds I see each year, regardless of where I see them, and a list of all of the birds I've seen in my life (at least the ones that I can remember)!
But my favorite list? That would have to be our yard list. Keeping track of birds seen in
your yard is an easy way to get started with "listing," and a great way to supplement your science and nature curriculum for your home schooled child. This is the first list we started, and the one which is always up to date because we keep it right by the backyard window, where we can write things down as we see them.
Begin by keeping a field guide to identifying birds close to your window, along with a
small notebook. If you have access to a checklist of birds in your area, that is the easiest way to
check birds off as you see and identify them. Check with your local Audubon Society or Parks
Department, either one is a possible source for a local checklist. As you identify a new species,
mark it down on your checklist, along with the date you identify it. In our yard, we have
identified 27 species of birds, not bad for a mostly urban backyard. Our newest species was a
Varied Thrush, spotted in August of 1996. You might also want to include the arrival dates of
migrating species, such as warblers. It is fun to check your list and see that you're within a
couple of weeks of arrival of last year's spring migrants, and to start watching the windows to
see when they'll arrive this year. Another thing you might want to keep track of is the number of
species and number of birds that are at your feeder throughout the year. If daily records are not
possible in your child's study schedule, pick a set time of the day, like noon every Monday, and
record what you see each week throughout the course of a full year. You'll be surprised at the
This is something children enthusiastically get involved in, as you all stand at the
window and count the number of birds and identify each species. I've learned that we get Black?Headed Grosbeaks in the late summer, usually females, but we don't see them any other time
during the year. We get Western Tanagers in the spring, and we get one or two migrating Cedar
Waxwing flocks in mid?summer. What about your yard? In the East, you will probably see
the lovely red Cardinals. When did you see the first one of the year? How many did you see at
once? You can even record how much seed the birds are eating, and when you had to buy new
supplies. For example, in September of this past year we had at least two generations of House
Finches eating at our feeders, and I ran out of seed. Next year, because of my records, I'll know
to buy more seed in September!
Listing can be as complex or as simple as you choose to make it. Start with a yard list,
and get the family involved. It is inexpensive, educational, and fun!
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: WINTER BIRDS
The weather is cooling, and we humans are turning to indoor activities. I like this time of year, when the furnace purrs quietly and I can curl up with a good book, warm and safe. But what do our bird friends do during the winter? They have no furnace, nothing artificial keeps them warm.
At this time of year, the birds that are in your yard are likely year-round residents. In my part of the country, the Pacific Northwest, that means birds like Flickers, Downey Woodpeckers, Bushtits, Black-Capped Chickadees, House Sparrows, House Finches, Scrub Jays, and Dark-Eyed Juncos. These are the birds I know the best, the ones that I see all year. I know their songs, I know their habits, I know what they like to eat, and some of them I even know by sight — like Spats the Chickadee, that some of you may remember me writing about in past columns. Spats is a partial albino, so he’s pretty easy to recognize. He eats a lot, too. Spats has been coming to my feeder for two years now. When you get to know birds like Spats, you start worrying about what might happen to them between the times you see them, especially in the winter. Where do they go when it is cold and windy? What do they do when it rains? How do they get enough to eat? And what if, as it does in my part of the country, it freezes and snows?
Now is the time for your children to really learn how to take responsibility for helping the birds you’ve been studying together. Your feeder makes the lives of the birds easier, and yours more enjoyable. The first thing you’ll want to do is keep the feeder clean, to avoid spreading any germs, and keep it full. The #1 food of choice is black-oil sunflower seeds, because of their high oil content and high meat-to shell ratio, which provides high nutrition during the critical winter months. If you don’t have a suet feeder out, now is the time to get one. Any backyard bird supply store (and several large grocery stores) will have them, along with suet cakes to fill them with. Suet is another high energy food that birds like woodpeckers, bushtits, and chickadees love to fill up on in the winter. The suet cakes that I buy, called “peanutbugger,” come with small dried insects in the cakes, and the birds love them!
Lots of birds aren’t seed eaters. Birds such as mockingbirds, robins, thrushes, bluebirds and waxwings will be tempted by raisins or currants that have been softened in warm water, or sliced fruit such as apples or oranges. Serve these on a flat “platform” feeder, or simply on a plate on the ground. Some people like to put out leftovers from their tables — bits of toast, cake or even pancakes. There is nothing wrong with that, but make sure that whatever you put out for the birds is not stale or moldy. What isn’t good for us is also not good for the birds. Also be aware that human food scraps may attract less desirable wildlife, such as rats or raccoons, which can be a pesky nuisance for you and your neighbors. If you stick to regular birdseed and bits of fruit you are less likely to have that problem.
Fresh, clean water, as it is during the rest of the year, is a crucial component of your birdfeeding regimen. In the northern part of the country, unfrozen water is very hard for birds to find, and they will be grateful for a place to drink and bathe. A shallow, easy-to-clean birdbath is best, but that can be made from most anything — a clean garbage can lid, a frying pan, a pie plate, whatever works. Try to make your birdbath look as much like a natural puddle as possible -- a couple of small, clean rocks will provide the birds with a place to perch and will help slow ice formation. Your backyard bird supply shop can provide you with an electrical immersion heater that will keep the birdbath free of ice, should you live where that’s an issue. Although putting anything electric in water is against all the safety rules we’ve grown up with and you’ve taught your children, birdbath heaters come with all the appropriate safety precautions and are made to be used outdoors, so they are quite safe and easy to use.
Children can help keep your feeders clean by scrubbing them once a month with soap and water and then dipping them in a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Rinse well and allow to dry before refilling them with birdseed. They can also help by raking the seed hulls that collect underneath the feeder. If left alone, the hulls can grow bacteria, and they can also kill your lawn or flowers.
For a special treat for the birds, how about filling pinecones or tree knots with your own home-made high-energy suet and peanut mixture? Older children can do this alone, younger children will need supervision: Here’s what you do:
Buy 1 cup fresh suet from your butcher and ask him or her to grind it for you. Ask for “short” or kidney suet. Melt the suet in a sauce pan, then add 1 cup peanut butter and stir until blended. Take the mixture off the heat and allow to cool. While it is cooling, mix 3 cups yellow cornmeal and ˝ cup whole wheat flour. Once the suet/peanut butter has cooled and begun to thicken, add the dry ingredients. Use the mixture to spread on pinecones or to fill knot holes in trees. As you prepare for Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays, why not decorate an outdoor tree with lots of pinecones filled with this special bird treat? You’ll enjoy watching them, and the birds will have a wonderful feast of their own. What better way to say “thank you” to the birds that give us so much pleasure all year?
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: WHAT BIRDS EAT
If you have a bird feeder in your backyard, like I do, you’ve probably noticed that you get eight or ten different kinds of birds who are shaped somewhat similarly, and who have beaks which are short and fairly pointed, ideal for cracking open bird seed. They have small feet with toes that allow them to grab onto small branches or the perch of a bird feeder.
Birds eat lots of different kinds of things. Perhaps you have a zoo nearby. If so, take your children on an outing and look at all of the different kinds of beaks birds have. Draw pictures and make notes. Each different shape is designed to help the bird eat a particular kind of food. A hummingbird has a long, thin beak which helps it poke into the middle of a flower and drink the nectar. A pelican has a big beak shaped kind of like a scoop, to help it “scoop” fish out of the water. A hawk has a large, hooked beak that helps it eat things like rabbits and mice. A cardinal has a beak that is thick and shaped like a cone (“conical”), to help break open seeds and nuts. A waxwing has a short beak that is slightly hooked, to help it easily pick berries. Have your child make a list of other birds they see at the zoo, or in your backyard (if you don’t have a zoo in your area, you might want to go to the library and find some books with birds from other parts of the world). After you get home from the zoo, or from the library, have your child draw pictures of some of the birds they find the most interesting. Help your child learn about what these interesting birds eat, and talk about why the shape of that particular bird’s beak helps it to eat that particular food. Talk together about what kinds of food we eat. How does the shape of our mouth help us to eat the foods we like? How about a cat, or a fish? How are their mouths shaped, and why?
How about a bird’s feet? How can that help them catch or hold the kinds of food they like? When you’re at the zoo, or at the library, look at the different kinds of bird feet. A parrot has feet that are almost like hands. They are the only birds that can use their feet to bring food to their mouths. A woodpecker has feet with toes in both the front and the back, allowing them to climb up and down trees and hold on tight to the bark. A little chickadee can use its foot to hold a seed up against a tree branch so it can use its small, hard beak to break open the seed. Chickens and grouse have thick, strong feet so they can scratch the ground to uncover food. How about a duck’s feet? How are they shaped and why? How about a Heron or Stork’s feet and legs? How are they shaped and what do they look like? Why?
How about feathers and colors? Birds that live in tropical areas have bright colored feathers, to allow them to blend with fruits and flowers. Birds that live in the Arctic can be all white, to blend in with the snow and ice. Lots of birds in our backyards are brown and grey, to allow them to blend with the trees and the ground. Sometimes, however, even birds in our backyards can be brightly colored, like the Bluejay and the Cardinal. This is often to call attention to themselves, especially at the time of year when they want to be attracting a new mate.
Now let’s have some fun with this! Have your child pick a food source — fish, berries, bananas, coconuts, roast beef, grass, bugs, snakes, lizards, whatever they like. They don’t have to be real things, they can be imaginary things. What kind of beak would the bird need to have in order to eat that kind of food? What kind of feet? What color would their bird be, and why? What name would they give their new bird? This “natural arts” lesson can be expanded to include “designing” animals, as well.
The whole purpose of this lesson is to help your child learn and understand about how birds (and animals) have adapted to live in very specific environments and to eat different foods. What would happen if all birds looked the same and all ate the same? What if every living thing on earth was the same size, same shape, and at the same things? Scientists have learned that if all of the birds in the world disappeared overnight, humans would survive for less than a year. Bugs would overpopulate, with no birds to feed on them. Some predators would die off, with no birds to feed on. Some trees and flowers would die as well, with no birds to spread their seeds. Every living thing on Earth depends on every other living thing on Earth. Each plays a different part in life, each according to plan.
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: BACKYARD HABITATS
Learning about the birds that live in your neighborhood is fun and educational. I’m always trying new things in my yard which might attract birds, as well as other kinds of wildlife. Yard and garden magazines often have articles with glorious pictures showing you the various shrubs and flowers that Mr. and Mrs. Smith planted on their 5.2 acres in order to attract 132 species of birds to their yard. Not many of us have 5.2 acres, and even fewer of us have the time or money that would be needed to completely re-landscape in order to attract wildlife to our yards. But creating an inviting habitat need not be expensive, or difficult. The planning involved can be an excellent learning opportunity for your home-schooled children.
First, take a look at what you already have. If you live in a downtown apartment with windows that don’t open and no balcony upon which to hang a bird feeder, then maybe there isn’t much you can do. For almost everyone else, there are minor changes and additions you can make which will bring wildlife to your doorstep. We need to remember that as we have built our cities we have taken over a lot of land that used to belong solely to wildlife. It is possible to co-exist, if we are willing.
There are three major things that all species of wildlife need: food, water, and shelter. Have your children draw a picture of their yard. Use graph paper, if you have it, because graph paper can make visualizing the size of things in proportion to each other a little easier. They’ll need to draw a square or rectangle for the house, with space up front for the front yard and space out back for the back yard, in whatever proportions your particular yard needs. Next have them draw in any large trees. Next put in any shrubs or hedges. Finally, add in any permanent flower or vegetable gardens. Let them be artistic, that’s part of the lesson and always to be encouraged.
Next, have them identify where birds and wildlife might obtain food. Obviously, if you have a vegetable garden that you don’t want to share with rabbits, rodents and birds, you’ll need to keep your garden fenced and perhaps use any of the standard non-toxic deterrents such as an artificial owl on a post, or shiny silver disks on strings which blow in the breeze. A good garden store will give you ideas. Avoid toxic pesticides which might kill or sicken domestic animals or friendly wildlife. Any plants which produce seeds, fruit or nuts are highly attractive to birds. Even berries which are poisonous to us, like holly, are not always poisonous to birds and wildlife. If you are interested in expanding your garden, local garden supply stores can tell you what species will thrive in your climate zone. For an older student, have them design a yard for your specific area, perhaps even your specific yard, which would provide a natural supply of food and shelter for two or three species of birds which might be found in your neighborhood.
You can, of course, provide a supplemental food supply by putting out bird feeders of one or many kinds: black oil sunflower seeds will attract the widest variety of birds, but also consider millet, thistle and suet. The more variety you provide, the more varied the species you will attract. If you want to discourage squirrels from sharing in the food you provide to the birds, you’ll need to investigate “squirrel baffles” — yet another research project for your child. Wild bird supply shops can provide you with the information you need. I’ve found that a wide plastic dome above my feeders has kept the squirrels out of my expensive bird seed, but because I love the squirrels I also provide them with corn-on-the-cob in their own feeder, which can be purchased (in almost any quantity) cheaply from wild bird supply shops or farming feed stores.
For shelter, shrubs and hedges are great places for birds to hide from rain, wind and predators. Holes in trees will provide homes for woodpeckers or squirrels. Do you have any of these in your yard? If so, have your child circle them on their “yard picture.” If you want to do even more, you can buy or build birdhouses for shelter, and they will attract different birds to your yard. Wild bird supply stores will sell you birdhouses or books on how to build birdhouses, or you can do an Internet search and find one of the many sites that will tell you how big your birdhouse needs to be, and how big the entrance hole needs to be, in order to attract the species you are interested in hosting. This, too, is a great project for a more advanced student: researching what species might live in your area and what the specifications would be for a birdhouse that would meet their needs. To supplement their research, have them identify what the natural nesting habitat for these birds might be, and whether those natural habitats could be provided. Whether your bird-friends are nesting in natural or man-made homes, during the nesting months (roughly February through July), the birds will always appreciate bits of string, yarn, or shredded cloth which they can weave into their nests. I’ve seen birds pulling soft fur out of inattentive cats and dogs, so while you’re grooming your pets you can add soft clumps of fur to the bits and pieces you put out in your yard for the birds. Be cautious with this, however. If you use chemical soaps or sprays on your pet to control fleas, don’t put those clumps of groomed fur out for the birds. Those chemicals can be highly toxic to both bird eggs and chicks.
How about water? A stream or a pond is wonderful, but an inexpensive bird bath, or even a hole hollowed out in a tree stump or a flat rock and filled with water, will provide an important source for wildlife to drink and bathe. Yard, garden, or wild bird supply shops will have many different varieties, from simple bowls that you can hang from a tree limb to fancy pond arrangements with several layered pools and a fountain. The wildlife doesn’t really care, although moving water is always more attractive to them. Find something that suits your yard and your budget. The most important thing is that the water be clean. Especially when the weather warms, bacteria will grow quickly in standing water. Make cleaning your birdbath and filling it with fresh water become a daily habit.
If you would like more information on how to make your yard a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, contact the National Wildlife Federation at http://www.nwf.org. They can tell you how to have your yard certified as a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat,” a program which they began in 1973 as a way to acknowledge the efforts of people who “garden for wildlife.” The National Wildlife Federation has similar programs for “Schoolyard Wildlife Habitats” and “Workplace Wildlife Habitats,” for those who want to broaden their efforts beyond their backyards.
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: SPRING TIME IS NESTING TIME!
When I was a child, I spent part of each summer with my grandparents at their cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. One summer when I was about eight or nine my grandfather assisted me with the construction of my first bird house. It was small, and painted blue (my favorite color at the time), with a tiny welcome mat painted below the front door had the word “welcome” painted rather crookedly. To my delight, a pair of Mountain Chickadees moved right in and raised a brood of chicks. I’ve been hooked on bird houses ever since. If you’d like to get your child involved with helping birds set up housekeeping, here are some tips to help you get started.
More than two dozen North American birds are known to nest in birdhouses, including bluebirds, robins, chickadees, warblers, wrens, swallows, woodpeckers and owls. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” in selecting a bird house, you’ll need to decide which bird (or birds) you want to attract and then purchase or build a house for that particular bird. You can do the research by catalog, by visiting one of the many shops which specializes in wild bird food and houses, or by going to the library. There are even places to shop for bird houses on the Internet. I signed onto a good search engine, plugged in “BIRD HOUSE” and got 41 different web pages that had something to do with bird houses! There is an excellent site at http://www.bcpl.lib.md.us/%7Etross/by/house.html#7, entitled “Homes for Birds,” maintained by the Baltimore Bird Club.
For example, you may decide that you want to build a bird house for chickadees, because you’ve seen them in your yard and you’d like to learn more about them. According to my information sheet from the Audubon Society, a house for chickadees should have a cavity floor of 4x4 inches, a depth of cavity of 8-10 inches, the entrance hole should be 6-8 inches above the floor, and the size of the entrance should be 1-1/4 inches, and you should locate your chickadee house 6-15 feet above the ground. If you wanted to build a house for Robins, the specifications would be different.
If you do make your own bird house, make sure you do not treat the inside with stains or preservatives, as fumes from the chemicals could harm the birds. Rough cedar or exterior plywood are good, durable building materials, and rough wood should be used so young birds can climb out of the bird house when their time to fly has come. Several one-quarter inch ventilation holes should be provided to prevent suffocation of young birds, especially if you live where the summers are hot or humid. Drill three or four one-quarter inch holes in the floor for drainage. Galvanized nails or brass screws will not rust like ordinary nails.
Whether or not you put up a bird house in your yard, consider putting out bits of string or yarn or tiny pieces of fabric. Birds love to include these when they are building their nests.
Although it is hard to do, if you have chosen to feed birds in your yard, or if you have chosen to put up a bird house, please try to keep your pet cat indoors during the spring and summer. Cats are responsible for the deaths of more birds, especially young birds, than any single other cause. If you cannot keep your cat indoors, please put a bell on its collar.
During the spring and summer nesting season, you or your child may come across a baby bird which has fallen to the ground. It is hard to resist the temptation to pick it up and take it indoors. If the bird is feathered, the best choice is to simply leave it alone. Its parents are likely near by, and it could be that it was time for this young bird to leave the nest and learn to fly. If it does not have feathers, try to return it to the nest. If that is not possible, put the bird in a small box, like a shoe box, and get the bird to a wildlife rehabilitation center. It might be a good idea to find the nearest center at the beginning of the season, write down the address, and find out what their hours are, so that you won’t be searching for that information when you need it most. Don’t attempt to take care of the bird yourself, their needs are very specific and without training it is possible you would do more harm than good. On the other hand, you might look into the possibility of becoming a “foster parent” for baby birds. Our local wildlife rehabilitation center, a part of the Audubon Society of Portland, trains volunteer “foster parents” on the care and feeding of baby birds. When abandoned babies are brought to the center, they are assigned to “foster families” where they are fed around the clock for as long as it takes for the baby bird to grow feathers. When it is time for the baby to “leave the nest,” it is returned to the center and then, when the center professionals are certain the bird can fly and fend for itself, it is returned to the wild. If this opportunity is available in your area, being a “foster parent” to a baby bird would be a wonderful experience for you and your child!
Many thanks to the Audubon Society of Portland, from whom much of the information from this article was obtained. I have shared it with you with their permission.
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: DISCOURAGING PESTS AND PREDATORS
Over the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed watching the birds in my yard as parents and fledgling youngsters visit my feeders together. I was particularly enchanted by a large family of chickadees, parents and four chicks, that explored our yard from their nest in the laurel hedge. Through the open window by my desk in the study I can hear them now, calling to each other, and they bring me great pleasure. I am hopeful that the young will return next year to raise families of their own.
It happens all too often: one day you’re watching with great pleasure the progress of a young family nesting in a bird house in your yard. The chicks have hatched, the parents are busy with around-the-clock feedings. The next day you look out and the nest has been completely destroyed and the chicks have vanished. A few feathers linger around the opening. Or maybe you’re watching the birds at your backyard feeders, only to watch with horror as the neighbor’s cat rushes out from under a bush to grab an unwary sparrow which was feeding on the ground. Instances like these make us question whether we are doing the birds any favors by providing them with food and housing, or if we’re simply providing predators with an easy target.
All children need to learn that predators and prey are basic to the natural world. We can’t prevent or change that, nor should we want to. There are, however, some things that you can easily do to avoid inadvertently aiding and abetting the predators.
Domestic cats cause millions of bird deaths every year, and home owners often feel powerless to do anything about it. Most cats are allowed to roam freely from yard to yard, and yards with bird feeders are a favorite stopping place. If you own a cat (and I do, so please don’t label me a cat-hater), please keep them indoors during the nesting season. If that is absolutely impossible, please have your cat wear a bell. Educate your neighbors, and ask them to bell their outdoor cats. Patch up or block off any holes which cats may be using under or around your fences. If nothing else works, equip your kids with squirt guns. Cats hate to be wet. If they get squirted often enough, they’ll start looking for another yard where the owners are less hostile.
The easiest way to discourage predators from bothering your bird house or feeder is to mount them (the houses and feeders, not the predators!) on metal poles. Tree-mounted bird houses and feeders can be protected by skirting the tree with a sleeve of aluminum sheeting. If they can’t “get a grip” on the trunk, animals will leave your trees alone. To many homeowners, though, five feet of metal sheeting around the trunk of their trees is too high a visual price to pay.
Bees and wasps can be discouraged from bird houses by coating the inside of the roof with bar soap. At the completion of the nesting season, lightly treat your birdhouse with a pyrethrin or rotenone insecticide to kill fly larvae, bird lice and mites
Protect your bird houses from cats, squirrels, raccoons and opossums by adding a predator guard. A predator guard is simply a tube that small birds can easily crawl through, but the wider paws of predators cannot reach past. Predator guards can be purchased at any back yard bird supply shop. Using a small diameter hole (maximum of one-and-a-half inches) for the nest will also discourage less desirable birds, like House Sparrows and Starlings, from taking up residence in your bird house. Don’t use a birdhouse with a perch below the entrance hole, the perch is just as useful for predator birds as it is for the residents. One birder friend of mine suggests planting Rue underneath your feeders. He says cats hate the smell of it and will avoid going near it. I haven’t tried it, but I’m considering it for next year when we do some “naturescaping” improvements in our yard.
Bird feeders invite pests of their own, including squirrels and other rodents, raccoons, and birds that you’d just as soon stayed away, like those pesky House Sparrows and Starlings. The best deterrent to squirrels and other animals is to mount the feeders on a post with an under-the-feeder domed squirrel baffle. Hanging feeders can be covered with squirrel baffles as well, and the one I’ve had in my yard for the past year has worked remarkably well. When picking out your feeder, choose one with small perches that larger birds like jays and crows will leave alone. Platform feeders look nice and allow easy viewing of the birds, but they also invite animals and pest birds.
Something I recently read, but had never thought about before, was to avoid clear plastic feeders with feeding ports an inch or larger in diameter. Small birds, like chickadees, can squeeze past the feeder ports to get at the last few seeds inside, but then they can’t figure out how to get back out. That led me to head outside to measure the feeding ports on my “Droll Yankee” tube feeder, which passed the test.
Bird baths are the single most attractive element in your yard, according to the birds, but they do have their own set of problems. Small birds can drown in more than three inches of water, so adjust your water level accordingly. The bath should be hosed out and fresh water added daily, and it should be washed with hot, soapy water at least once a week. If you use an electrical bath warmer in the winter, make sure it is UL listed and connect it to a properly grounded outdoor socket. Don’t use glycerin or antifreeze to thaw the bird bath, or you’ll kill the birds.
If you attract birds to your yard, be aware that many commercially available herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers can be deadly poisonous to birds. Read the labels. There are safer alternatives available. Your local USDA Extension Office or the Environmental Protection Agency can provide information on how to safely discourage insects and pests without harming the wildlife you’re trying to attract. Use organic gardening techniques. Learn to identify and care for natural pest controls, such as ladybugs and praying mantises. The very birds you are trying to attract are a form of natural pest control, since they will eat spiders, mites and bugs. Above all, grow native plants. Native plants may support 10 to 50 times as many species of native wildlife as non-native plants, they need less water, and they grow well without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Researching native plants would be an excellent project for older children.
Teach your children that by attracting wild birds and animals to our yards we must accept some responsibility for their health and safety. We cannot prevent all problems, but we can help reduce, and avoid contributing to, the dangers that exist in our own back yards.
BIRDWATCHING WITH CHILDREN: HOW BIRDS GET THEIR NAMES
Let’s talk about names. Do you have a nickname? Does your child? I do. I’ll tell you mine — but later!
My husband and I planned, with great anticipation, a visit to Britain in September of 1997. His parents had been living there for the previous two years, and would be there for two additional years following our visit. We were with them for 2-1/2 weeks. As is always the case when we travel, we had been researching where we could and should go looking for birds once we arrive. Should we visit Cornwall, or Wales, or Scotland? Lots of people have been gave us good advice.
You know what we discovered when we were planning our trip? After a few e-mail conversations with new birding friends in Britain, it became obvious that we weren’t talking the same language — even though we were all speaking English. For example, one friend mentioned a good place to see Divers. Divers, I said? Like scuba divers? No, he said, and he gave me the Latin name of the bird he was talking about. I had to look it up in my bird guide, and it took a long time. He was talking about Loons! After a couple of more exchanges we learned that what we here in the U.S.A. call an Arctic Loon, they in Britain call a Black-throated Diver. What we call a Black Scoter, they call a Common Scotor. What we call a Mew Gull, they call a Common Gull. A Black-necked Grebe is an Eared Grebe. A Bunting is a Longspur. An Auk is a Dovekie. A Long-tailed Duck is an Oldsquaw. How will I ever get them straight? I decided to do some research on how birds get their names. I thought you might enjoy sharing what I learned, and what I learned would make an excellent lesson for children who love birds. I’ll give you some basic information, and some tips for lesson plans, and you and your children can take it from here!
Around the world we all speak different languages. We all know that. Even those of us who speak the same language, like Britain and the U.S.A., sometimes have different words for the same thing. How, then, do scientists from around the world share information if they don’t have the same name for the same bird?
Remember the classifications of life? I memorized them in the 5th grade: “Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.” The two Kingdoms were Animals and Plants, then life-forms were broken down from there. All birds are placed in the Class “Aves” (pronounced “a’vays). That’s where my nickname comes from: “Aviella,” which means “watcher of the birds.” There are two different Orders in the Class Aves: Palaeognathae, which has 4 different Families of birds,, and Neognathae, which has the other 24 Families. All birds, no matter what their “common” name is, have one scientific name that places them in the proper classification: My friend in Britain may refer to a Common Gull, and I may refer to the same bird as a Mew Gull, but both of us are talking about “Larus canus” -- the scientific name for that bird. In Germany that bird would have a different common name, and the Japanese would have a different name yet, but if it was identified by “Larus canus” everyone would know exactly what bird we were all talking about!
How do birds get their names? The naming of all organisms on earth, both living and fossil, is regulated by a number of international bodies operating under the oversight of either the International Union of Biological Sciences or the International Union of Microbiological Societies. Yes, real people sit in real rooms and debate what the new bird will be called, within certain guidelines. In the case of birds, the International Union of Biological Sciences utilizes a “Code” called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, to come up with the specific names. Most names have been set for a long time. There are, however, occasionally new species discovered in more remote areas of our Earth — even now. When a scientist believes he or she has identified a new species, it causes much excitement in the scientific community, and a meeting will be called in the appropriate International Union to pick a name.
How can your child learn more about naming birds? For the older student, he or she might want to research how modern birds developed. There is some evidence that birds probably evolved from ancient dinosaurs, dating back 140-180 million years. Your children who are “Jurassic Park” fans might enjoy doing some research on the oldest known bird, the long-extinct “Archaeopteryx,” the oldest known bird, which lived during the Jurassic Period, 135-180 million years ago. If your children are not dinosaur fans, have them pick out a favorite backyard bird and find its scientific (sometimes called “Latin”) name in a bird guide. By going to the library, or by utilizing the Internet, how many different common names can your child find for the same bird? Your student may need to refer to guide books from other countries, or find bird lists on the Internet from other countries, in order to complete this project.
For the younger student, concentrate on common American names. Some common names come from the name of the person who first identified the bird — like Bewick’s Wren, or MacGilvray’s Warbler. Some names tell you exactly what the bird looks like, such as the Red-Winged Blackbird or Black-Headed Grosbeak, or a Bluebird. If your child’s name is Heidi Smith, let’s pretend that’s her “scientific” name. Perhaps she has several “common” names, or nicknames. Maybe Dad calls her Pumpkin. Maybe Grandma calls her Missy. Maybe Mom calls her Long Legs. Everyone knows that Missy and Pumpkin and Long Legs are really Heidi Smith. It’s the same with scientific bird names and common bird names.
Have your child pick one or two favorite birds — it isn’t necessary to know the “scientific” name of the bird, it can be “the red one that comes to the feeder.” Have them make up a common name of their own. If you have more than one student, so much the better! Everyone can have their own name for the same bird. Have them draw and color a picture of “their” bird. Have an older student (or you, if there are no older students) write the “scientific” name of the bird at the bottom of the drawing, and the student can write “their” bird name at the top of the page. If you *do* have an older student in your household, perhaps the lessons can be combined: the older student can find several common names for the favorite bird of the younger student.
The important thing for everyone to remember is that there can be many, many, different “nicknames” for the same bird: but when it gets right down to it there is only one “real” name: the one the scientists use. A Great White Heron is a Great Egret is a “Casmerodius albus.” Easy, right?