Getting your kids into birding can create a lifelong passion, an interest in science, and a great chance to get outside together.
It’s spring and the birds are on their way back to our yards, parks and skies. Birding can be a very spontaneous pastime, requiring very little financial investment, and it’s a great hobby to share with your children. A field guide, some binoculars, a notebook (if you don’t want to mark up a field guide like I do), and a little patience are all you need.
For beginning birders, there is one book in particular that I highly recommend, “Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Birds: Eastern Region” by Donald and Lillian Stokes. National Geographic also has a good field guide, along with the well-known Roger Tory Petersen guides, but if you really want to go for the gold, “Sibley’s Guide to Birds” has become the birders bible.
As for binoculars, finding some that fit your kids is key. For the toddler set, any sturdy set from a toy store will do. As children get older, weight is an important factor to consider, as kids won’t enjoy lugging around heavy binoculars. Have kids try out the binoculars to make sure they’re comfortable.
Feed the Birds
The easiest way to see birds up close is to bring them to you. Choose a bird feeder that’s small and, most importantly, squirrel-proof. Squirrels will not only eat all the seed but will not allow the birds to come to the feeder. Birds in our neck of the woods all love sunflower and safflower seeds. You can buy hulled sunflower seed if you are concerned about having to sweep up discarded sunflower hulls or live in an apartment where being a good neighbor is important. Woodpeckers and blue jays love peanuts, goldfinches love thistle seed. Bluebirds find mealworms a real treat.
Another small and inexpensive feeder option is a suet cake. The suet snaps into a small hanging cage (preferably hung from a post rather than a tree) and attracts birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers. Suet is an important energy source for birds in the winter. It may take a few days for the birds to discover your feeder, but once they do you will find the most activity will be in the mornings or late afternoons or in bad weather.
Who is who?
Now that you are armed with birds, book and binoculars, it’s time to figure out who is visiting you.
Criteria used to ID birds
What time of year is it?
Many birds are migratory which means they move in large flocks in search of food and refuge from winter cold. During the winter, not only do the Canada geese winter over in the company of millions of tundra swans and snow geese, but we will see a large number of bald eagles come down from the Northeast and Canada. Sometimes there is a large invasion (or irruption) of a specific breed of bird. Most notably we have seen very marked irruptions of snowy owls (think Harry Potter’s Hedwig) although scientists haven’t quite figured out why this happens. Smaller common winter birds include Carolina chickadees and dark eyed juncos. Most well known and anticipated in this area is the return of the osprey, who spend their winter months in South/Central America and start moving back through the Bay in late February to reunite with their mates and raise a new batch of two to four youngsters.
How big are they?
Use common birds like sparrows, cardinals, robins and crows as a reference when trying to identify a bird you’re unfamiliar with.
How do they fly?
Some birds fly in swooping patterns (chickadees), some wobble as they soar in circles (vultures). Some birds are champion soarers, while some seem to flap furiously to stay aloft.
What do they sound like?
If you are keeping score, (and some birders do) identifying a bird by its call counts just as much as ID’ing it visually. Sometimes you simply won’t see them, especially if they are foraging in ground cover. Especially in spring when they are locating a mate, many birds will often do a call and response, meaning they will call out and if you listen carefully, you will hear another one answer in the distance. Owls are very doing this right now—listen for the low, soft hooting of a great horned owl or the ‘who-cooks-for-you’ call from a barred owl in the early evening as they pair off and establish their territories.
Some birdsongs are very distinctive, like the titmouse that sings ‘peter-peter-peter,’ or the Carolina wren’s ‘wichity-witchity-witchety.’ White-throated sparrows sing ‘Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada,’ and robins sing ‘cheerio-cheerio.
What do they look like?
Observe their overall color. Are there markings on the wings and heads? Do they have eye-stripes, cheek patches or throat patches? The size, shape, and color of their beaks are all helpful identifying marks. You should also notice that the males are generally more brightly and distinctively marked while the females are more subdued.
Cardinals, goldfinches and house finches are classic examples of this. Male cardinals are scarlet red while the females are more of an olive drab color. The same applies to the bright yellow male goldfinches whose mates are also an olive drab. Male house finches have a lovely reddish-purple wash on their heads while their mates are unremarkably blah and brown. Trying to ID a female bird can often be challenging, but keep an eye for the male, who will probably not be far away, and it’s likely you will be able to identify the pair.
As your kids’ birding skills progress, they are becoming citizen-scientists. These amateur birders can help scientists keep track of trends in bird counts and movements. Cornell Lab of Ornithology (allaboutbirds.org) holds bird counts several times a year that allows backyard birders to report their findings.
Birding has also reached the cyber world with the Merlin App (available for free at merlin.allaboutbirds.org). Simply answer a few questions about a bird you’re attempting to identify, and the app will tell you what bird you see. It is eerily accurate.
Regardless of how many birds you see, hear or identify, the most important thing is that you can your kids can have fun and enjoy being outside together.