Birdwatching with children

A child birdwatching
A child birdwatching. Photo by K Woodgyer/Shutterstock

Before my daughter was old enough to talk, she’d grunt and squeal and point whenever she saw a bird. For all the world, it seemed like she was crazy about birds, but I wondered if I was imagining it. Maybe, I thought, I was projecting my own interest in birds on her. Then my daughter started to talk, and one of her very first words was bird, and shortly thereafter she said owl. My daughter really did love birds — and, in fact, she still does. These days, at age 3, she likes to stand on one foot and pretend that she’s a flamingo.

I’ve come to understand that my daughter isn’t unusual — a lot of kids gravitate toward birds. And why wouldn’t they? Birds come in all colors of the rainbow and all shapes and sizes, and like fairies and airplanes, they fly! Plus, the lives of birds mirror the lives of humans, so little ones can relate when they see mommy and daddy birds teaching their babies, protecting them, or bringing food to them. Of course, kids — like adults — are all different, so maybe you have a youngster in your life who is so busy with trucks or books or dogs that he or she doesn’t seem to notice birds. That’s OK, too.

What’s important for grownups to keep in mind is that if a child has an innate interest in birds, that interest can be nurtured, and if a child isn’t currently interested, an interest can, in many cases, be sparked. And there are a lot of good reasons for wanting to share the world of birds with children.

First of all, a love of birds gets kids outdoors, and that’s a good place for kids (and adults) to be. Studies show that spending time in nature is beneficial to both our physical and mental health. Among other things, it improves blood pressure, helps lift depression, decreases the risk of cancer, reduces stress, and boosts short-term memory. Ample, unstructured time outdoors provides kids with the opportunity to experiment with activities such as climbing trees and jumping over streams, and this gives them increased confidence, creative problem-solving skills, gross motor skills, and flexibility. A “wild child” has a greater ability to concentrate and, in short, has an academic edge.

Indeed, an interest in birds can be a child’s first step to falling in love with biology and the other sciences. We were, in a sense, all born scientists. That is, babies and toddlers are constantly experimenting and observing in order to figure out how the world works. They throw their toys to see if they will always fall; they mix their milk with their beef stew to see how the consistency and colors change; and they constantly test our boundaries. Of course, much of this is what we generally call “bad behavior,” and we naturally try to curb it. But the trick is keeping our children’s innate scientific interests alive by channeling the impulses rather than squashing them. Exactly how we go about doing this is somewhat individual. It depends on who we are; it depends on who our kids are. Yet there are some pointers we can keep in mind.

A child birding with their parent
POINTING THE WAY: When you give a child a pair of binoculars, you open them up to a world of birds. Photo by patat/Shutterstock

ENGAGING WITH QUESTIONS

For starters, really engage with a child’s questions: How do birds fly? What do crows eat? Are those robins fighting or playing? Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, but show them how to find the answers to their questions in books, on the Internet, or by observing. Matching games are another possibility. For example, you could gather images of various types of birds plus images of their eggs, nests, and/or the environments where they live. Then ask the child to match them up. Matching adult birds with their newly hatched young is particularly fun since — I think we can all agree — baby birds are quite funny looking.

Now, consider a birdwatcher’s most important tool: binoculars. When you give a child a pair, she’ll follow your lead finding nests or observing how different types of birds have different flight patterns. But then it’s just a matter of time before she trains her binoculars on the moon and begins to discover the wonders of astronomy. So, in that same vein, consider the gift of a microscope for an upcoming birthday. In magnifying feathers and eggshells, children get a whole other view of birds, and then they can marvel at seeing other things up close, too — maple leaves, onion skins, swamp water, and more. By the time your kids use microscopes in biology class, they’ll be pros.

Another reason to want to share the joy of birds with children is because, right now, the world needs green-thinking like never before, and a love of birds will spontaneously spill over into a desire to protect the wild spaces that birds live in. Children have such a good sense of what’s fair and right. Educate them about how their actions have an impact and empower them to make positive changes. Show your kids how human activity threatens birds, and they’ll want to know what they can do to help. Make it clear to children that if they get too close to a nest, the parent birds might abandon it. Tell them that if they give birds seeds that aren’t fresh, they could make the birds sick. And show them how they can keep birds from crashing into windows by putting decals, BirdTape, or other patterns on the glass. In addition, maybe you’ll want to encourage your kids to think of ways they can raise money for a charity that supports wildlife. Maybe they could have a lemonade stand or sell their old toys.

In order to encourage an interest in birds, there is no better place to start than by giving your children the opportunity to see real, living birds right in front of them, so don’t be afraid to take your kids or grandkids birdwatching. They’re never too young to start, but make sure that you tailor the experience to suit their age and individual likes and dislikes.

DEEPENING RELATIONSHIPS

When birdwatching with your kids, it’s not an opportunity to work on your life list. It is, in fact, a chance for you and your children to deepen your relationship with each other and the natural world. If you insist on marathon birding sessions, your kids will come to hate and resent birds. So, follow your kids’ lead. If they want to stop because they’re tired or bored, or because it’s blazing hot or freezing cold, or because they’re hungry, listen to them. Of course, it’s also important to make sure you come prepared. Always bring sweaters, comfortable shoes, snacks, and water with you.

Moreover, come prepared with the understanding that birds are often elusive and difficult to spot, even for adults. Whenever I walk home from day care with my daughter, for example, I’m always trying to show her Blue Jays, but those ruckus little birds keep darting around and disappearing into the trees, so she doesn’t usually manage to see them. Nonetheless, we still enjoy birdwatching together.

The world needs green-thinking like never before, and a love of birds will spontaneously spill over into a desire to protect the wild spaces that birds live in.

Really little kids like seeing birds that are numerous and easy to find, such as gulls at the beach, pigeons at your local city monument, or chickadees in parks where they might land on your hand for a few seeds. Ducks are another easy-to-spot option for small children, but don’t give into the temptation to feed waterfowl bread — let alone pretzels or chips! (Among other reasons, it encourages the formation of flocks that are too large, and health concerns arise when crowded birds defecate where they feed.) For parents who want to show their small children more unusual or elusive species, I suggest visiting a zoo or humane wildlife park. We took our owl-crazy daughter to one so that she wouldn’t think owls only existed in books.

Older kids enjoy more challenging “bird hunts.” When you go birdwatching with kids, show them that it’s like being a detective or a ninja. To not scare away the birds, you have to move through the forest or meadow stealthily. So, how quiet can you be? Can you creep across the forest floor? Can you use gestures to communicate with each other silently? It’s also helpful if you wear clothes that camouflage you, and you get to use binoculars or a spotting scope. Birdwatching is an exciting adventure!

A child birding
LOOKING UP: Studies show that spending time in nature benefits kids’ physical and mental health. Photo by wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

SCRAPBOOKS, FEEDERS, AND BOOKS

Serious adult birders usually keep lists of the birds that they see, and youngsters can do something similar. That is, they can keep a scrapbook where they write down where and when they see different species, add drawings or photos of the birds, or write poems and stories about them. Encourage creativity. Kids, in fact, don’t need to limit their scrapbook to birds they’ve actually seen. They should, instead, feel free to include material about birds that they’d like to see but haven’t yet — maybe a Blue-footed Booby or a King Penguin. Kids can even include material about imaginary birds. Maybe your child dreams of a parrot-ostrich-hummingbird mashup. Get him to draw a picture and stick it in his scrapbook. He’ll particularly love it if you sit down with him and also draw your own crazy avian creations.

Building or decorating a bird feeder is another great project for crafty kids. Living in a condo, I don’t have a backyard. All the same, I bought a feeder made of raw wood from the dollar store and gave it to my daughter to paint. We then varnished it and hung it from a tree in a nearby park. Now, whenever we go there, we’re sure to stroll by it to see how the birds (and squirrels) are making use of it. If you do have a backyard, you and your little ones can hang your feeder there, and then your whole family can enjoy seeing cardinals or finches out the kitchen window. Having a backyard bird feeder helps make birds a part of the fabric of your family life.

Including books about birds in your bedtime-story routine is also helpful because the more kids know about the amazing secret lives of birds, the more intrigued they’ll be. Lots of great bird books for kids are available. ABC Birds, an American Museum of Natural History board book, is a favorite in my house. It’s pithy enough to be enjoyable for tots but also meaty enough to still be relevant for kids in early elementary school, plus it has the added benefit of supporting letter learning. Also check out the National Geographic Kids book Little Kids First Big Book of Birds, which is choc-a-block with great photos and facts.

When birdwatching with your kids, it’s not an opportunity to work on your life list.

Just remember, watching birds and learning about them isn’t doing homework or making the bed. Keep it fun. Children are active little creatures and like to involve all their senses. Accept that and work with it. See if your kids can mimic the honk of a Canada Goose or the walk of a Common Loon, and if you find a feather or an old abandoned nest, let them touch it (but leave it where you find it). Finally, for one last trick up your sleeve, let your little ones in on the juicy family history of birds. That is, birds are related to that all-time kiddie fave — dinosaurs! Showing kids drawings of feathered dinosaurs and primitive birds will teach them about evolution, and your kids will probably get a giggle out of imagining a chickadee coming from a creature resembling a tyrannosaurus.

These days in my house, I have a son who is just a little older than my daughter was when she first started saying “owl.” One night during bedtime reading, he gleefully pointed to a picture of a bird with blue, black, and white feathers and squealed something that sounded rather like “Blue Jay.” If he were my first child, I’d be thinking that couldn’t be what he meant, but this second time around, I don’t doubt it for a minute.

This article was first published in the January/February 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

Originally Published

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Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is an editor, journalist, and picture-book author. Her books include My First Book of Canadian Birds (Nimbus Publishing 2019). For many years, she taught English as an additional language to children and adults in Canada, Japan, Korea, and Mexico. 

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