Bird watching made elementary
Observing and identifying birds can be a gateway to a variety of learning experiences. This primer will get you started birding.
Bird watching has become a regular and integral part of my science program. I introduced bird watching because of the many educational aspects of the activity, including environmental awareness. Birding activities may be designed to address several goals of the science curriculum: adaptation, comparing and contrasting animals and animal life cycles, to name a few. It may also serve as an inspiration for art and writing lessons.
Once we begin to see the wildlife around us, we can’t help but fall in love with it. An African environmentalist once said, “We will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
To that end, I am less inclined to frighten young children with grim tales of species annihilation, pollution and habitat destruction. In my opinion, these are topics that ought to be addressed in the adult world, where the responsibility lies and real action can be taken. Introduce children to the wonder and the beauty of nature and they will grow up wanting to conserve it.
Research has shown that children who do not regularly encounter wildlife, develop unreasonable fears. Everything wild becomes strange and scary. Studies also suggest that unless these personal connections are made in early childhood, they may not be possible on such a deep, meaningful level.
Bird watching is simple. It takes little or no equipment to get started and can become a life long pursuit. How often do we have the opportunity to cultivate an interest that our students can carry with them for the rest of their lives?
Stories from the field
We had only been bird watching for a short time. I walked with a group of students, along the edge of the ball fields and we scanned the trees and fields for birds. A student pointed and yelled, “Bald Eagle!” Of course, I assumed it was wishful thinking. I took a look with my binoculars. It had the silhouette of an eagle and its head appeared to be white. I just couldn’t believe it was a bald eagle! I wasn’t at all sure if any lived near enough and told the children so.
When we returned to the school building, I called the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. A naturalist there told me that we were indeed within the hunting range of bald eagles whose rookeries were located at a lake some distance from our school.
One morning, I took a group of second grade students outside to try out their newfound bird watching skills. As we practiced techniques of spotting and focusing with our binoculars, a great blue heron skimmed the treetops at the edge of the ball field. His long dangly legs trailed lazily behind him and his neck was held in that typical S-shape. We watched him fly the length of the field, then slip smoothly down, behind the trees.
He left us stunned and silent. We could do little but grin at each other — another memorable moment shared.
That very same class spotted a pair of house finches, three eastern bluebirds, a crow, and many pigeons. As we walked back to the school building, one of my students pointed to the sky and asked, “What are those, Mrs. Dow?”
Although they were barely specks near the horizon, I guessed that they might be vultures. They flew closer and the specks became distinctive shapes. They were turkey vultures and soon, we could distinguish their wrinkled, red, featherless heads. For a moment it looked like the vultures were coming for the children! It was exhilarating and fascinating as the big birds flew directly over my awe-struck students. We watched as the vultures circled high above the road on the other side of the school, intent on fresh road kill.
That little outing took less than forty-five minutes, but I have no doubt that many of my students will remember it for a long time. I know I will. It made me wish that every child could experience that same kind of close encounter with nature.
One way to begin is to attract the birds to your school campus. The National Wildlife Federation will tell you that there are four elements necessary for attracting wildlife: water, food, shelter, and a place to raise their young.
A water source can be as simple as a tray that you fill and clean regularly. Birds are strange in that most will not bathe in dirty water; but if they are thirsty, they will often drink it. Regular rinsing and refilling is a job that any child can perform.
Everyone knows that most birds eat seeds. Most everyone knows that the black oil sunflower seed is the preferred type. But there is much more to feeding birds than seed. Robins love raisins. Bluebirds love mealworms. And woodpeckers go crazy over a slice of orange.
You can get creative with birdfeeders, or just designate a spot on the ground, along a fence or on a retaining wall where you regularly leave them a treat. They’ll learn quickly and before you know it, you’ll have ample opportunity to bird watch.
Once you start feeding and watching birds, you’ll probably want to identify who is coming to visit. You and your students may have already experienced the frustration of having a bird fly away before you can find it in a book.
Bird watchers have developed a few simple techniques to aid in identification. They concentrate on a several key physical characteristics. When you have the bird in sight, don’t look away until you nail down those features. Then, if he flies away, you can still look him up in a book.
Bird identification diagram
The following diagram contains some of the basic parts used in bird identification. Describe a bird in terms of these attributes and you can almost always find him in your field guide.
1. Crown 2. Bill 3. Throat 4. Breast 5. Belly 6. Foot 7. Tarsus (Leg) 8. Tail 9. Rump 10. Wingbars 11. Back (Mantle) 12. Nape 13. Eyebrow
A high-quality, printable version of this diagram is available in PDF format.
Most of us have looked through a set of binoculars at one time or another; so we assume that we know how to use them. There is a bird watching method that makes spotting a bird with binoculars much more consistently successful.
We usually spot a bird with our eyes, first. The trick is to keep your eyes on the bird. Don’t look down as you raise your binoculars. You’ll lose it if you do. Keep your eyes on the bird and it should be right there, when you get the binoculars in place. Practice this method. You’ll get faster and more accurate in time.
Mike Dunn, at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, introduced me to a great idea for teaching this practice to younger children. He suggested taping together two empty toilet tissue cardboard tubes — or cut in half, one paper towel tube. The children can practice their bird-watching-binocular techniques without the expense of a class set.
Indoors and outdoors
I often practice identification indoors with the help of photos, calendar pictures, or color slides. I have a set of common feeder birds on color slides that I’ve correlated with their songs on a CD. When the weather is not cooperating, we bird watch in the classroom. We use the field markings (bird parts) and the songs to identify the birds before we verify our conclusions with a field guide.
Mike Dunn suggests laminating bird pictures or photos and placing them in shrubs and trees, outside, before bringing your class out. They will be able to practice their binocular and identification skills on birds that don’t fly away.
If at all possible, invite local birding enthusiasts to come along with your class. Once you see your campus through the eyes of an experienced bird watcher, it will never look the same. By introducing your students to bird watching, you may end up an enthusiast, yourself!