As I walked up to the middle-school students waiting for me outside the environmental-education center on Jekyll Island, Georgia, I could tell they were tired and grumpy. This was going to be a tough class.
Their friends had just left for the boat tour that they had enjoyed the day before. They had seen dolphins, and they were amazing. Now the kids had to stay and learn about something that sounded much less exciting.
One girl in particular was just not having it. “Why would anyone,” she asked, hands on her hips and a degree of scorn unique to 12-year-olds on her face, “want to look at birds?”
Why indeed? Leading the way to a trail through the woods to a pond, I thought about her question. As an outdoor educator, I had learned through trial and error what kids respond to, and I had a feeling that the storks and spoonbills at our destination might change her mind. If you want to share your love of birding with your kids, grandkids, students, or any other young people in your life, the ideas below may help spark the interest you’re hoping for.
Make sure the kids know how to use binoculars.
I have seen frustrated children struggling to locate birds while sweeping their binoculars around haphazardly. Luckily, using binoculars effectively is a skill that can be taught.
Before heading out, ask your kids to keep their eyes fixed on a stationary point about a hundred feet away (like the top of a telephone pole) while they raise the binoculars to their face. Once they’re comfortable finding things, have them slowly turn the focus knob back and forth to see how it changes the image. Don’t forget to remind them not to walk while looking through their binoculars, unless you want to deal with scraped knees and smashed optics.
Start with big, flashy, easy-to-observe birds.
As fascinating as warblers are, they’re usually not ideal quarry for a first-time birder, especially a young one. Instead, hit up the local ponds for ducks and herons, find out if your area is home to an eagle nest that you can observe from a safe distance, or visit a nature center with an active feeding station and a blind. If you have a good idea of what species you’ll encounter, consider leaving your Sibley at home and give your young companions a simplified field guide that includes only the birds they’re likely to see. You can make one by photocopying the relevant pages or creating your own with a word processor, photos, and a printer.
Fill downtime between birds with games.
My favorite go-to activities are adaptation matching and bird-behavior charades.
For the first, print out pictures of a variety of bills and feet, and have kids match each one with what its owner uses it for. Examples: Woodpecker feet are for climbing trees, hummingbird bills are for sipping nectar, turkey feet are for walking on the ground, and cardinal bills are for cracking seeds.
For the second, write descriptions of bird behaviors (preening, flycatching, courtship) on index cards and ask the kids to act them out. Not only will the game keep them occupied, but it will give them ideas of what to watch for when you find your next bird.
Slow down and embrace wonder.
Get excited. Jump up and down (metaphorically, maybe, so you don’t scare away the birds). Rather than moving quickly from bird to bird, spend time marveling at each one. Even if all you end up finding are robins and crows, try to notice something new about them — the way a robin cocks its head to watch for worms moving in the ground, or the varying tones of the caws the crows use to talk to each other.
Kids will take their cues from you on how to react to what they see. In return, you can experience familiar sights anew through their eyes. It may be your five-thousandth time watching a Song Sparrow sing, but if it’s their first, it’s still something special.
At the pond, the middle-school students and I watched an Anhinga surface amid the duckweed, a silver fish writhing in its bill. Unable to swallow it while in the water, the bird made for shore, swimming with only its head and sinewy neck above the surface, the fish struggling the whole way. The kids and I held our breath, waiting to see whether the fish would escape before the Anhinga reached dry land. It didn’t. The bird gulped it down whole, eliciting impressed “Ewws” from the group.
Afterward, the previously scornful girl sidled up to me. “Okay,” she said quietly, replaying the little life-and-death drama in her mind, “that was cool.”
Yes, I thought, it was.
Rebecca Deatsman is communications assistant for the journals The Auk: Ornithological Advances and The Condor: Ornithological Applications, as well as a science writer and environmental educator.