I’m not a birder, even though I love watching birds. I carry binoculars on every hike, I’ve read birding books and I can identify a fair number of local birds reasonably well. But I’m not a birder. I don’t follow updates that a particular species has been spotted and then head there. I don’t do Big Years or get up extremely early for “bird sits”. I don’t have a spotting scope, (although it’s on my wishlist) and I’ve never spent the time to learn how to tell juvenile gulls apart.
What’s my point? It’s this: you can be like me! And even better, your whole family or class can be like me! You can love birds and observe them, even without all the amazing knowledge of a dedicated birder. Like any hobby, it’s easy to feel like you don’t know enough, don’t have the right equipment or most likely, don’t have enough time to get really good at something. But you don’t have to be a good birder to appreciate birds. Below are some ideas for how to observe and appreciate birds with kids. If you have binoculars, great, but even if you don’t, you can still observe birds.
Observe bird behavior. Among the naturalist community, it is well known that as soon as kids are given a name for something, they almost instantly become less interested in it. Once they know what something is, it is filed away in that “I know about that” place and it no longer easily elicits questions. And learning about nature is all about questions! So, I’m going to suggest something pretty crazy: don’t try and identify birds! In the beginning anyway. Instead, focus on what the bird is doing. Is it walking, flying, hunting, eating, building a nest? What can these observations tell you about the bird or even the ecosystem you are observing?
Spend time observing common birds. Yes, they might be everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that crows, ravens, turkey vultures, starlings, sparrows or even pigeons aren’t interesting. In fact, birds that have learned to live in urban areas are fascinating in their own right. What are they doing? Are they in your neighborhood at the same time everyday? What do you notice them eating? How do you think they have learned to survive next to humans?
Go to places where a lot of birds are guaranteed. Trying to see little brown birds in the woods is hard and can be very frustrating. So try the shoreline instead, especially in the winter at low tide. All along the mudflats, even in the busy San Francisco Bay Area, you will see tons of birds.
Record what you see. Generally, kids love to draw and by making a “bird journal”, you can instill a critical field science skill: detailed field notes. Encourage kids to write down the date, time and the weather. Then they should note as much as they can about the bird they are observing. This is great jumping off point for questions, as kids can return to their journals at different times of the year or in different weather.
Listen. Most of us depend on our eyes and have to see a bird to feel like we’ve observed it. But we have other senses too and sometimes listening to bird song or calls can be really interesting (especially when you are in those thick woods). In order to really listen, close your eyes.
Pay attention to the time of year. Is it nesting season? Is it migration? Are the winter birds here? This helps not only in birding, but in starting to connect to the rhythms of nature.
Play hawk watch from the car (for passengers only!): In my family, on long road trips, we count how many hawks we see from the car. On certain sections of the 101, we’ve seen as many of 20 raptors per hour!
Get to know your yard birds. Identify a window in your house where you may see birds and make a point of doing some bird watching from your couch. From here you can figure out what plants draw the birds and when they come, among other things. For example, I like to watch hummingbirds (I’m not sure what kind!) from my living room window. Recently, I saw a hummingbird fly very high up to the top of a huge tree behind my house. I’m still wondering what that bird was doing. What food would have been up there? Was it a mating display? I don’t know, but my not knowing makes me more interested in observing further.
So here’s to birding, or not, as the case may be!