It’s time to get outside and see what you can see!
By Emily Brunner
Kids are natural-born scientists, and no one investigates the world quite like they do! Everything is so new, so interesting, and so in need of exploring. Bird watching (or birding, if you’re in the know) is a perfect opportunity to encourage this curiosity and teach a multitude of new skills. And don’t worry, it doesn’t matter your skill level. Even if you can’t tell the difference between a pigeon and an eagle, birding is for everyone!
So, let’s break it down: what exactly is birding? The term is broad but simple and includes everything from taking a minute to identify the birds in your yard to traveling to see birds in their natural habitats all over the world. It’s something that can be enjoyed whenever you want, with minimal equipment, and a hobby that is inexpensive and fun for all ages.
One of the best things about birding is the fact that you can do it absolutely anywhere, from the park to the subway station! It is a wonderful way to get to know and appreciate where you live and to find the hiking trails and green spaces around your home.
I know it can be intimidating at times to take the kids out adventuring, especially the really little ones. So, if a hike or going to the park isn’t for you, you can set up a bird feeder in a safe space in your yard and see who comes by for a snack. There is no shame in window birding! As an illustrator who works from home, I have become good friends with the birds in my tiny yard and have seen 18 different species and counting, despite living in the middle of Los Angeles!
Or, if you live in the city and don’t have a yard, you can have fun learning what species of birds are able to coexist with humans on a regular basis. You never know what fascinating facts you might discover about pigeons or crows! For example, did you know that crows can remember human faces?
Inspire a Love of Nature
I have never known a kid who wasn’t fascinated by the natural world. It’s colorful and vibrant, full of noises, smells, textures, and animals! Helping your kids build a personal connection to nature at a young age is a beautiful way to teach empathy for all living things, and it also can help kids learn about the grand narrative of life on this planet.
Fostering a respect for the creatures that live around us is a great way to teach why nature is important. If you live in the city, it can be a way to teach why green spaces are vital as well. Identifying what birds you see and when you see them can also be an excellent tool to help understand seasonality.
I love seeing the migratory warblers and sparrows show up in the winter and head north in the spring; it’s my favorite way to mark the seasons. And that Cooper’s hawk you see perched on the power line? What kind of meal is he looking for? Or what about that Black Phoebe perched on a parking meter. What is she looking for? Learning about the different species of predators and prey can be a great way to teach how ecosystems work and can even be a gentle way to introduce your family’s views on living and dying.
Fostering a love of nature isn’t just for kids; if you have time to designate outside, the health benefits for all ages are countless. Bird watching is, at its core, an act of mindfulness. Multiple research studies have shown a link between birding and a sense of calm, a reduction in stress and anger, and an easing of depression and anxiety. And let’s be honest; the past couple years have been riddled with all of these; so, why not give it a try?
The past couple of years has also been a time of isolation for many. The bird-watching community tends to be enthusiastic, warm, and welcoming (as well as a little nerdy), so birding can be a good way to get out and make some new friends!
Birding is also a great way to increase your whole family’s activity levels. Because most birds have a low tolerance for loud noises or chaos, birding is an activity that can’t be done too quickly, so it actually works well as a family pastime for all ages. For the young ones who can’t go too far, you can still see a lot in a short amount of time. And for your older kiddos, they’ll have a blast taking a long hike where they have to use their minds as well as their feet!
Learn New Skills
The variety of skills that can be taught by bird watching is really endless, but some of my favorites for kids include: drawing, journaling, research, observation, concentration, and language.
Does your kiddo love drawing? As an artist and illustrator, bird watching was what encouraged me to try and draw new things when I was little. Every new species that showed up at our bird feeder had to be chronicled after all! Observing and learning new species gives kids new things to draw and can be a way to help them learn to pay attention to fine details. It’s no longer just “a bird”; it’s a Golden-crowned Kinglet. It’s kind of like Pokémon, but in real life.
Nature journaling goes hand in hand with drawing as a way to incorporate newfound drawing skills with observation skills. A nature journal is essentially a way to document what you saw, when you saw it, where you saw it, and what it was doing. It’s a wonderful way for kids and adults to track the patterns in nature and find trends within the puzzle.
What about animal facts? Every kid I know loves to tell me their newest and most fascinating animal fact of the day, and the bird world is chock full of fascinating new species. For example, did you know the fastest animal in the world is not the cheetah? It’s actually the Peregrine Falcon! They can dive at speeds of up to 242mph! What facts can you find about the birds that live in your neighborhood?
Some of my favorite childhood memories come from watching the birds on my Grandma’s bird feeder and then trying to identify them in my worn, falling-apart-slightly Audubon Field Guide to Birds. If you have a kid who loves a good puzzle, bird identification can be a super fun teaching tool! Oftentimes, you really have to concentrate on what you saw or what it sounded like to get a correct ID, and attention to detail is a real-world skill with broad benefits.
Birding also opens the door to learning new words and broadening your vocabulary. This can look like anything from learning to identify wings, beaks, and feet for the little ones, up to learning scientific terminology like ornithology, murmuration, altricial, etc. As an artist with a degree in zoology, I could go on and on, but let’s move on to where to get started in your new hobby!
So now that you’re convinced it’s a great idea to go look at birds, what supplies should you have? It depends on where you want to start. Binoculars are an excellent tool, but not required; there is actually a lot that you can see without them. In fact, there are a fair amount of blind birders out there who identify birds only by sound! A birding field guide is also super helpful. Just make sure the one you get is specifically for your region of the world.
If you plan on taking the kiddos to the park or out hiking, make sure you have the basics of water, snacks, sunscreen, and maybe bug spray. Just be sure what you pack in, you pack out; birding and environmental responsibility go hand in hand. And if you want to bring snacks for the ducks at your local park, make sure to never feed bread products! Instead try giving peas, cracked corn, oats or chopped greens; these options are much safer and healthier for the birds, and better for the environment.
If you plan to start with a bird feeder, make sure you get appropriate food for the birds in your region, and make sure the feeder is in a sheltered area that is safe from predators (outdoor cats) or raiders (I’m looking at you, squirrels). If you plan on hanging a hummingbird feeder, make sure you stay on top of keeping it clean and full of fresh nectar. Contrary to popular belief, this is super easy to make at home. Simply combine 4 parts water with 1 part plain white sugar, stir to dissolve, and voila! Nectar! You can even attract new and different species depending on what food sources you provide! Do you want to see woodpeckers? Try hanging suet. Want to befriend your local crows and jays? Raw, unsalted peanuts are the way to go!
Now, what are you waiting for? Get out there and see what lives in your neighborhood!
Resources for the Whole Family
- Check out your local chapter of the Audubon Society for local bird information, advice, or birding meetups! The Audubon Society online also has excellent resources and activities for kids! https://www.audubon.org/get-outside/activities/audubon-for-kids
- Your local Natural History Museum would also be an excellent place to look for local community science projects and events!
- Two amazing community science projects that are held annually are The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) and Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The GBBC is a 4-day global event held annually in mid-February and gathers bird population data for scientists all over the world! The CBC is in its 124th year and is an annual bird count in the United States and Canada that helps the Audubon society track population trends and the effects of humans and climate change on our feathered friends. Both of these events are excellent ways to get to know your local birding community! www.birdcount.org and www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count
- If you don’t have a field guide yet or just need some extra identification help, eBird, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is an excellent resource. There is also an associated app where you can track your sightings and donate the information to science! www.ebird.org
- The Merlin Bird ID app created by the Cornell Lab can also be a fun way to identify birds by sound!
- The Seek app by iNaturalist is a photo ID application that allows you to photograph nature and find out what it is you’re looking at.
Click the links below to find the adorable downloadable coloring pages of birds I have drawn just for you!
Please leave a comment below with what you like most about birding.
Emily Brunner is the illustrator of Rockhound and Kiwi & Little Blue: What Makes a Bird a Bird?