Take Kids Birding! – Section Three

In an effort to drastically improve and enhance the Birdfreak Guide to Taking Kids Birding (a handy PDF we created in January 2008) we decided to overhaul it completely. We have been working diligently on crafting what will hopefully become a small book. We have changed the name of this “guide” to Take Kids Birding! to provide a better emphasis on the overall goal: to encourage parents and their children to partake in birding and other nature-related activities.

We would appreciate any feedback including criticism on this section but keep in mind it is a work in progress and hasn’t been through the editor (our sister, Susie) yet. You can leave comments below or email us directly with ideas. Check out the preview to Section One and Section Two.

Section 3 — Keeping the Interest

Kids tend to get hungry and thirsty when outdoors and especially if the birding hike starts leaning towards “boring”. Make sure to always bring snacks and drinks and maybe even a lunch to eat out on the trail. It is fun to eat outside (again, away from structure and order) and also gives a “goal” to the walk – reaching a special place in the woods to eat.

Many of the new(er) gadgets used in birding are perfect for keeping the interest alive as well.

If you are willing to lug around a spotting scope, do so. Many birds love to perch in plain view. A close-up view of a Red-tailed Hawk or Great Blue Heron brings an amazing new appreciation and excitement of these “common” birds.

Audio devices such as iPods with portable speakers are a great way to “call in” birds and also to teach children the bird sounds. If you see, for example, an Eastern Towhee, playing their song and call even after the bird has flown, will help teach the child what to listen for.

3.1. Birding With Multiple Kids
3.2. Life Lists
3.3. Feeding Birds
3.4. Providing Water
3.5. Building Bird Houses
3.6. Field Notebooks/Sketching
3.7. When to Call it Quits

Section 3.1 Birding With Multiple Kids

Birding with more than one kid is fine and has some great advantages. For starters, you are teaching more kids at once but you also have more eyes to help spot movement and more ears to hear a strange bird call. But there are limits.

The most kids any one adult birder should take out at a time depends on their ages and abilities. We recommend at most four to six kids per adult because a larger group makes walking on narrow paths harder and usually leads to more talking, noise, and horsing around. Be prepared to walk at a slower pace, and accept the fact that having more children with you may limit what you see.

For larger groups, like school field trips and scout outings, just make sure to follow the above suggestion as best as possible. It may be a good idea to split the group up and go in different directions. Consider bringing two-way radios to stay in contact with the multiple groups, letting others know what birds are being seen.

Section 3.2 Life Lists

There have been great debates about whether or not to keep “life lists” of birds seen. We enjoy them and thus keep them. For children, life lists can be a cool addition to their birding outings. Reaching goals helps retain the interest and relive the memories of new birds found.

You can celebrate a child’s 50th, 100th, etc. bird in a special way. Of course, building a big list shouldn’t be the only reason to go birding, but everyone likes feeling a sense of accomplishment. Keeping lists in general is a good idea. A trip list recapping what you saw helps reiterate the birds even more. Reviewing birds on the list with the bird book improves the learning process.

Keeping lists with dates seen also helps to understand that certain birds are around at different times of the year and provides a comparison throughout the year and from year to year.

For the very youngest birders, you might want to skip the lists because it is hard to know what they actually see or will remember seeing later. It’s not so much of a “check it off as completed” list but a benchmarking tool into the progress as a birder.

Every sighting should be enjoyed but naturally new birds discovered will garner more excitement than the 200th sighting of a Common Grackle.

Section 3.3 Feeding Birds

As discussed earlier, bird feeding stations can be a great place to begin an interest in birds. If you don’t already have one, consider putting up a feeder or two.

Start small by purchasing a thistle sock and filling it with thistle (nyjer) seed. This will attract colorful finches such as goldfinches, House and Purple Finches, and in the winter birds like Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins, depending on where you live. These are also easy to maintain so long as they don’t rip and you wash them if they get dirty.

There are many other feeder types and seeds available. Each will attract different birds and some will attract “unwanted” species that will take control over the feeders. Squirrels and other animals will try and get at the seed as well.

The key to a good feeding station is to keep everything clean and in good shape and to offer a variety. Hummingbird feeders are another highly successful type and depending on where you live, could attract some really interesting species.

In southern Wisconsin there was a Green-breasted Mango (a bird normally found in Mexico) that regularly visited a woman’s hummingbird feeder. Birds can show up anywhere at any time!

Section 3.4 Providing Water

A good source of fresh, running water can be just as important as food and shelter for attracting birds. You don’t need an expensive water feature to make birds happy.

With just a simple garden hose and a shallow basin such as a garbage can lid you can create a dripper that is an absolute magnet for birds. Attach a nozzle to the hose and loosen it ever so slightly to let the water drip. Turn it off over night to conserve water.

We’ve attracted over twenty species of warblers among other birds like Scarlet Tanagers, Indigo Buntings, and more by just using this simple method.

You may want to purchase a hose separator that allows for multiple hoses and that lets you alter the water flow or easily turn it off. This also ensures that you don’t monopolize your garden-watering hose.

Section 3.5 Building Bird Houses

You don’t need to be skilled with tools to construct your own bird house (or feeder). There are many kits available that have pre-cut wood and entrance holes for specific species of birds. If you are handy, than you can construct a bird house from scrap wood with plans readily available on the internet.

The key is to size the entrance whole properly to allow only the wanted species of bird. If it is too big, larger birds will take over or mammals and snakes will invade if a smaller bird tries to nest.

You can get more information including design plans here:

Section 3.6 Field Notebooks/Sketching

One of the most overlooked techniques in learning bird identification (and increasing the joy of birding) is keeping a field notebook. These notebooks, sketchbooks, or journals, can be as simple or elaborate as you wish.

Every time you are in the field, carry your notebook with and when a new bird is found, observe it as long as possible and then sketch and write all the details you saw. Being an artist is not a requirement.

Your journal should have plenty of space for a simple (or detailed) sketch and information about song, behavior, habitat, colors, size comparison, etc. Keeping track of the location, date and weather conditions is important too. You can then compare future sightings to the journal entries.

By allowing yourself to draw and write about a sighting you focus tighter on important features that are often overlooked by just observing. Often when you consult a field guide to compare, you will have that critical detail that determines a proper identification and in doing so, will remember for future sightings.

You don’t need a fancy, waterproof guide (although they work well). Any mid-sized notebook with a hard cover coupled with a few mechanical pencils is all you need to get your field journal started.

Section 3.7 When to Call it Quits

If a kid is showing the signs of boredom, tiredness, etc., it is best to end the outing. Forced enjoyment of something is a ridiculous idea and you’d be better off trying again another time. Kids can be finicky (just like adults) and sometimes they just aren’t in the mood to learn new stuff or hike in the heat or cold. You can always try another day.

Perhaps the most important thing about birding with kids is to make sure they aren’t feeling like they are learning. You shouldn’t quiz them or expect them to remember everything they see or hear.

Ask them what their favorite sighting was and share in their excitement. Keeping a list is a good idea. You can use how many species you saw as a goal to beat the next time out. Making birding into an outdoor game easily rivals any indoor video game.

You can also partake in a whole slew of other natural, outdoor activities as well. These are discussed in Section 4.

2 thoughts on “Take Kids Birding! – Section Three

  1. I’ve been hosting bird walks in my community for over a year now and I felt like I was making progress until this last bird walk. I found that the kids were all 8 and younger and they were more interested in sticks, rocks, and mud. They were too young to use the binoculars correctly even with instruction. When we saw the Great Horned Owl and the Downy Woodpecker up close is about the only time I could hold their attention. At that point the parents of these kids wisely excused themselves while the adult and more avid birders continued on. From now on I will just plan on excusing small children after 30 to 35 minutes. Even with my own kids, easy to see birds are the only birds that keep their attention. The lesson I learned is to manage my own expectations and prior to the walk, set the expectations of the adults about how we will conduct the walk and the time frames.

    Another interesting note about bird walks in general…never assume people know how to use their binoculars, even if they claim to be avid birders. Talk about eye-cups being folded back or rolled in or out if they have eye-glasses or not. Go over how to focus the right and left eyes and how to sight the bird with your eyes and bring up your binoculars while looking at the bird. Simple things that make a lot of difference. Bill Thompson III also suggests getting everyone’s optics cleaned before starting. We want people to have a good experience and a few minutes of extra attention can make the difference.

  2. Avimor – wonderful points! It is definitely more difficult for the younger kids. If birds are hard to find it will definitely limit the interest rapidly. Thankfully, even those interested in rocks and mud are at least outside so perhaps combination hikes will help – birding for awhile, investigating a creek or rock formation, then birding a bit more or check out a next box, etc.

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