Friday, January 6, 2017

Birdwatching With Your Kids

Birdwatching with Your Kids
By Christine Hill

Have you ever been distracted by the beautiful plumage of a blue jay? Or seen your child’s fascination at the flight of a magpie, or the call of a mourning dove? Well, here’s a great family idea to foster your children’s interest and get them more involved in the wildlife around them: Birdwatching!

What’s so cool about birdwatching is that unlike other wildlife, birds often come to you. So if gathering up the kids in a car or taking nature walks is usually just too much for you, you can bring the wildlife to your own back yard instead.

Birdwatching is an easy at-home task that’s great for kids of all ages. And, you’ll find yourself learning a few new things yourself! Here’s a quick guide to beginning birdwatching with your kids.

Make your yard bird-friendly

There are tons of ways to attract birds to your yard. Although you’ll see a lot of the classic urban species at first, the more that you look, the more you’ll see rarer and shyer species. Here are four steps that will make the magic happen.

  1. Add a birdbath. The beauty of a birdbath is that it’s appealing to a lot of the smaller species that don’t scavenge as much. It also attracts all different kinds of birds. So if your bird feeder only has seeds, and you want to get a glimpse of swifts and warblers that only eat insects, you can draw diverse species in with a birdbath. This will be especially appealing to birds who stay during the winter months, since water sources are more scarce. However, in order to prevent damage to the birdbath and keep the water appealing to passing birds, make sure you maintain your fountain correctly in winter weather. This article has some tips for that.
  2. Add a birdfeeder or two. Different kinds of birds will be attracted to different birdfeeders, so look into a few different options. I’ve always liked the hummingbird feeders that offer sugar-water and tempt hummingbirds to linger long enough for children to get a good look. You might also look into some fun homemade varieties of bird feeders, simple enough that you can have children help, which will get them involved in the project from the get-go.
  3. Plant your yard with birds in mind. The best way to attract birds to your yard with plants is to plant native species. Birds will feel more at-home and familiar with these species which are already incorporated into the natural ecosystem. Beyond that, you can plant species that have berries and seeds that birds love. This includes juniper, sunflower, black-eyed susans, and berry bushes, among others.
  4. Make nesting materials available. This could be old yarn, sticks and leaves from yard cleanup, shreds of paper, and even hair (ew-but birds love it). During nesting season, this will attract birds to your yard and might even encourage one or two to set up their nests close enough for you to view!

Learn what you can
The next step of birdwatching is educating everyone involved to recognize the species as they come. I recommend getting a book that focuses on local bird species, and another one that focuses on all the birds of North America, since birds have a tendency to range far and wide sometimes. Keep the manual close to the window so that you and the kids can reference it whenever there’s a cluster of birds outside your window.

There are also some really creative and fun ways to familiarize your children with bird species. For example, download a few apps on your phone or tablet. Kids always love interacting with technology, and they can learn new things while they’re doing it! NatGeo’s BirdsLite is free and it helps you narrow down the possibilities of birds that you see. Merlin is another great resource for bird identification and its interface is so easy that even young kids (or technologically handicapped moms) will be able to utilize it without trouble.

Remember that identifying birds isn’t just about how they look! You can also educate yourself on bird calls and practice with your kids. It’s also useful to understand additional information like eating habits and migration patterns.

Have the proper tools

A bird guide is essential, but remember additional tools that will make your bird watching more fun and effective. For example, get binoculars so that you can get a more up-close view and do a better job of identifying rarer species. You might also want to print out a checklist of the 50 most popular birds in your area so that you can keep track of what you’ve seen and look forward to the ones you haven’t. Keep a camera with a good zoom handy if you want to catch images of the birds.

Take it to the next level

If bird watching turns out to be a big hit with your kids, there are tons of family activities that you can do as capstone events. Join birding groups and conventions and participate in nature walks and events. You can take your kids on a field trip to a bird observatory or sanctuary where they can see species that don’t frequent your back yard. You can even take your children to a natural history museum where they can see taxidermied versions of bird species and get a really good look at how their favorite species look up-close.

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