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 here.
Section 2 — Where to Find Birds
Birds are practically everywhere. They can be found in big cities, on rural farms, and everywhere in between. There are many different types of habitats and each habitat will have different birds (with some overlapping). The better the habitat, the more diversity and the higher number of birds. But birds can practically show up anywhere at just about any time.
There are some places that are geographically located to have “better” birding. Plus, some lands that have been preserved because of their great habitats will naturally offer enhanced chances to find more birds. The great news is that no matter where you live, there’s bound to be a great place to find some really cool birds.
2.1 Your Own Backyard (Bird Feeders)
Backyards and bird feeders are an excellent way to start a kid birding. Many famous, world class birders began at a feeder. Even if your backyard is small or non-existant, if you can put up a feeder within view of a window you are bound to attract some birds.
There are often discussions about the environmental friendliness of feeding birds in an “artificial” setting, but for now the educational benefits of a well-kept feeding station outweigh any negatives.
Feeders provide all the essentials for a new birder: birds (of course!), a concentrated area to practice using bins, and the opportunity for long term study in comfort. Plus, as many great birders will tell you, it is important to get the “common” birds down before seeking anything elusive or rare.
Kids that have yet to master the use of binoculars will enjoy watching birds visit the feeders with the naked eye. This is also a good place to start an interest in photographing birds (discussed later).
The best way to set up a feeding station is to go to your local bird feed store or home improvement store and start small. Purchase a small to medium sized multi-purpose feeder that can hang from a tree limb and a thistle feeder or sock.
The multi-purpose feeder can be filled with sunflower seeds which are less expensive than safflower but higher quality than the “mix” seed bags which have low-quality filler seeds. The thistle feeder or sock (mesh bag) can be filled with thistle (sometimes called nyjer) seed which is a bit more expensive but attracts finches amazingly.
The goal in any feeding station is to have a variety of seed which can include suet bricks as well, at varying heights and feeders. Some birds naturally forage on the ground so spreading seed there will attract them. Of course, squirrels and other animals will also be attracted to a free offering of food so be on the lookout.
Most feeders can be equipped with commercial or home-made baffles that when installed well make it much harder for squirrels to pillage.
Once your feeding station is set up don’t get discouraged if no birds show up for several days. Have patience because once birds discover a good source of food they’re likely to return again and again.
Note: some small feeder birds like Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches become highly accustomed to people especially around feeders. Some really patient birders have been able to stand with an offering of seed and have birds literally eating out of their hands.
2.2 Bird Banding
If you live in close proximity to a bird banding station take every opportunity you have to visit. We began our interest in birds because of banding.
Bird banding in a nutshell is this: a licensed master bander catches wild birds in mist nets, records data about the bird, bands it, and then releases it.
The information gathered from bird banding is some of the most precise and important for bird population study and conservation. The birds banded are just a sample of a given area’s birds but it provides study opportunities not always available in the field.
In our home county in northern Illinois we are lucky to have one of the world’s premiere banding facilities – Sand Bluff Bird Observatory. Here, the banders put on a “show” describing in great detail not just what the banders are doing but about all sorts of topics ranging from bird color to conservation. The overwhelming feeling quickly gives way to just plain awe-inspiring learning.
No matter how many hours you put in the field, your chances of being eye to eye with a Baltimore Oriole are low. Bird banding gives that first hand “feel” to just how cool birds are.
If you reside somewhere that does not offer good backyard birding, bird banding can be a great alternative to spark the interest in birds.
Section 2.3 Open areas/Wetlands
Once the feeders have been thoroughly scrutinized and your brain is full of bird banding information, it is time to go into the field—or prairies, wetlands, etc. Any open natural area that has nearly 360 degree views will do.
Try to go to a place where you know there will be birds. Even if the birds are common (or even the same ones as the feeders) this will give kids more practice using bins and also increase the excitement of finding new birds.
Wetlands and rookeries are great places to visit as many of the birds are large and more stationary. A lake with a variety of ducks in it can be a great place (although you may need a spotting scope) as ducks often provide easier targets and still enough diversity to make use of a field guide.
If the weather is cold or the little ones are tired from hiking, take a drive down a quiet road (gravel roads work well for this) to look in farm fields for open country birds. Roadways with powerlines running parallel to them will often have raptors perched on them. This is a great way to find American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks. Powerlines often hold flycatchers and other birds as well.
Section 2.4 Other Birding Spots
Where you bird largely depends on how close your access is to superb birding places. Thankfully, nearly anywhere in the United States you are within an hour from a great birding location. You may not live near one of the best of the best, but we guarantee you’re closer than you think to great birding.
Start with your county map and look for state parks, forest preserves, large city parks with water sources (like creeks, rivers, ponds and even recreational man-made lakes), national forests, etc. Anywhere with public access, trails, and a variety of habitat will mean a diversity of birds.
After scouring your immediate area, look for other, larger state parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, state recreational areas, National trails, and more. Check out places like the National Audubon Society [www.audubon.org] and the Nature Conservancy [www.nature.org] for even more places. These last two are often some of the most unique and pristine areas in the country.
Many states now have official state or regional birding trails. These trails consist of a series of birding spots linked together by driving routes. They have maps and additional information to guide you in finding the location as well as what species you can expect to encounter.
You can view an updated list of birding trails here: http://www.aba.org/resources/birdingtrails.html
So after a two hour drive and a two-mile bird hike it is likely the kids are getting tired or even the dreaded “b” word: bored. The next section provides some ideas for keeping the interest going, short and long term.