Lifelong Birders: Introducing Your Kids to Bird Watching in Your Backyard
Finding a unique hobby to share with your child isn’t always easy. He or she might have completely different interests than you, and sometimes access to supplies or subjects is limited. But have you ever considered bird watching? Not only is it a great pastime sure to engage your child, you can do it from your very own backyard!
“Birding” often becomes a lifelong passion in addition to a rewarding hobby, and one of the best parts is that it’s open to anyone of any age or ability. This guide will help you engage your child in bird watching, whether you’re a novice or a seasoned birder. With these tips and techniques, you’ll bond over your shared interest and have a blast in the process!
The Benefits of Bird Watching for Your Child
There are all kinds of advantages to becoming a birder, both for your child and the pair of you. To start, it’s an opportunity to learn about your immediate environment: exactly what kinds of birds live there, the kinds of habitats they live in, why your area’s climate is ideal for them, and how different birds have adapted to human presence. It’s exciting to learn about an animal you can actually stumble across in nature, and that could even be nesting in your own yard. And since just about every kid is interested in animals, it’s got an edge over other hobbies for engaging them.
Bird watching is an excellent way for children to learn and practice real biology concepts, including identifying species, observing social behaviors and feeding habits, and studying the ways an animal’s environment affects its living. You’ll find opportunities to formulate hypotheses and test them. For instance: if you put out a bird feeder, then does your yard attract more birds, and perhaps a certain species in particular? It makes your child the scientist and your yard the observatory, and he or she will see real-world results instead of simply reading about them in a textbook. Bird watching makes kids more observant of their immediate surroundings, and just might spark them to be more curious and aware of the world they live in.
There are also significant hands-on aspects to birding that make it exciting for children. Birders may build their own bird feeders to hang in their yard or take photos of species they see. They use special equipment like binoculars that require training and careful handling. Best of all, most of these hands-on qualities work at any skill or ability level, and adaptations can be made quite easily.
Becoming an avid bird watcher can also help children develop important social skills. It requires them to sit quietly and patiently. They must maintain a level of calm throughout the process in order to avoid disturbing birds or other fauna. If they’re shy, it can be a way to help them learn to engage more with friends and family as an easy topic of conversation. Your child might even want to give the family “presentations” on his or her recent findings, during which he or she can practice public speaking skills. All the while, your child will be gaining knowledge and building confidence.
Finally, bird watching can create a truly special bond between you and your child. If you’re a seasoned birder, you can pass on your knowledge, experience, and insight around one of your greatest passions. If you’re a beginner, too, it’s a great opportunity to learn something completely new together. Your child will likely even be able to end up teaching you a few things, giving a confidence boost and enhancing leadership skills. You’ll be creating lifelong memories, and you never know — your child just might make it a tradition with his or her own kids someday.
Bird is the Word: Your Joint Endeavor into the World of Bird Watching
Sparking your child’s interest in bird watching can start by simply encouraging your child to look around at his or her surroundings. While you’re playing together in the backyard, point out the different birds that fly by. Talk about them with your child, asking questions to keep them engaged: Where do the birds seem to be going? Do any stop in your yard? Do you ever see them eating bugs around the garden? Have you noticed any nests in the trees? What kinds of colors or patterns do your avian visitors have?
If there are any questions that seem to particularly intrigue your child — maybe he or she wonders what blue jays eat when he or she sees them peck at the ground — look the answer up together. Use a paper field guide if you have one, but if you don’t, there are plenty of online bird guides you can pull up on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Encourage him or her to explore the book or website with your guidance, but keep it light and short enough that he or she doesn’t lose interest. Make the birds in your area a regular topic of conversation, observing even when you’re out running errands together or picking him or her up from school. Even just pointing out a particularly lovely warbler in a nearby tree encourages children to look more closely at the world around them.
Find out what kinds of birds are native to your area. Based on what you discover, you can set up the right kind of bird feeder and food to increase visits to your yard. It might even be a project you can partner up with your child on; at the very least, you can ask him or her to help find the best spot for it. Place it somewhere in easy view of a window where you both spend a lot of time, perhaps in the living room or kitchen. Keep a pen and pad close by, and make it a game to mark down which birds you see. Consider noting the time of day, weather, and exactly where you saw the bird. You can tally up total numbers at the end of each week, and observe how the numbers fluctuate over time. As you become more familiar with the names of native species, you can play bird watching bingo or compete to see the most birds by the end of the week.
Wait for a nice day outside — sunny, but not too hot — and then invite your child out on a backyard bird-watching expedition. Find a spot that gives you a good view of your bird feeder and the areas you see birds most often, perhaps moving lawn chairs or patio furniture for seating. Try to pick a place that’s somewhat out of sight, where you aren’t likely to disturb or frighten off the birds. Bring large pads of paper, pencils, and coloring utensils.
Before you step outside, talk to your child about proper birding etiquette. Some of the most important points to stress include:
- Birders must have zero impact on the bird — no touching or disturbing it
- Birders must respect each bird’s space and not invade its territory
- Birders must never disturb nests, and should avoid known nesting areas to avoid causing stress to the animals
Make sure your child understands that bird watching is a quiet activity. It’s OK to speak very quietly to each other, but overall, you want to avoid agitating the birds.
Once you’ve found the perfect spot and have your supplies, you and your child can spend some time observing and sketching what you see. Don’t worry about identifying them; simply draw what you see and appreciate the details — speckles on the wings or a brightly-colored beak, perhaps. Include some indication of where you saw the bird: on the ground, in a tree, or in water? Did you see many flying in a flock? Engage your child while you both work, praising his effort and offering guidance as needed. Try this activity on a few occasions, ideally at different times of day so you can see which birds visit when.
The next step is to find a field guide for your child. Keep in mind that while there are online and tablet versions, paper versions tend to be easier to make notes and draw sketches in — plus, they won’t lose battery life! It might be simplest to find a field guide specific to your area to avoid feeling overwhelmed. There are thousands of species of birds, but only a fraction of them will visit your backyard, so make it easy on yourself to find what you’ll see.
Using the field guide and your sketches, discuss together what you think each bird species is. Once you’ve made identifications, you can start comparing one bird to another: does one type of bird seem to come only in early morning while others come mid-afternoon? What kind of bird does each of you see most often? Do the birds have any observable behavioral traits like aggression or passiveness? Does either of you have a favorite, and why that bird?
You’ll be the best judge of when your child is ready to start taking on more advanced bird-watching equipment like binoculars. You might want to start off with less expensive gear at first, especially with young children who may be more prone to dropping things. Go over how to handle binoculars before going out to observe: practice careful handling, show him or her how to adjust the focus, and help place the strap comfortably and securely around his or her body. Show him or her how to lift the binoculars without looking down. Have your child practice keeping his or her eyes glued on an object while bringing the binoculars up to the eyes, and note that it will take time and practice to perfect — especially when it comes to moving birds.
Keep up some kind of regularly-scheduled time to bird watch with your child at least once a week. If your schedules conflict quite a bit, find opportunities to do a little bird watching that you can share with your child later; perhaps spending your lunch break outside or taking the more scenic route on your walk to work in the morning. You can even leave each other sketches of new birds you’ve seen around the neighborhood, or perhaps one you saw on your business trip out of town.
Encourage your child to express him- or herself creatively: perhaps you could each write a short story about a family of birds you see regularly. If he or she takes photos while observing, give him or her the chance to display this work around the house. Discuss your passion with the rest of your loved ones, sharing observations at dinner or family functions. Your child should feel proud to talk about his or her accomplishments in birding, whether it’s spotting a rare species or creating beautiful works of art inspired by the hobby.
When the backyard is your observatory, you never get to stop learning. Becoming a birder is a rewarding experience, one you and your child will love taking together.