This guide is designed to inspire you to take kids birding often and to help teach young ones to become birders, naturalists, and conservationists.
Kids are wonderful. They not only have the great capacity to learn, but they want to learn. Everything around them is new and exciting. Take a kid birding and you not only provide the opportunity to teach a child new things, but you afford yourself the opportunity to share in the same excitement of learning when nearly everything was brand new and interesting.
This guide will provide a starting point to ensure you have a good time birding with a child (or children). By no means is this guide all inclusive, but it will certainly help enhance a child’s appreciation of nature, turn them into a birder, and provide future generations with the conservationists we so desperately need.
Section 1 — Getting Started
Preparation before you venture into the outdoors is important to having a successful and fun time. There is a balance between packing too much and not having the right stuff. Mostly, it is better to pack a bit heavy than to forgo some of the more useful items. Although you do not need to go overboard either and make hiking miserable.
1.1 – What to include in your pack
To help in your packing here’s a checklist of important items that can easily fit in a normal backpack without bogging you down:
1. Water!! – make sure to have at least 20 ounces of water for every person and more if it is hot or you are hiking for more than 30 minutes to an hour.
2. First aid kit – a small “camper’s” first aid kit is fine. Make sure it is stocked with items to deal with scrapes and cuts, insect and snake bites, bee stings, and ice packs.
3. Cell phone – don’t leave it in the car!
4. Map of the area you plan to hike
5. Snacks – nothing that is sticky or would make a mess.
6. Bird book (field guide) – we discuss these in much greater detail later in this section.
7. Notebooks and pens – it is a good idea to write down observations while in the field and also provides a good reason to stop and take a break from hiking.
8. Sunscreen – good idea even on cloudy days
9. Insect repellent – if season dictates
10. Any other child-specific items like medication
No matter how much you pack it is important to always consider functionality of what you bring. Pack more water the first time out and make sure to drink often. Bring extra snacks and take more breaks. For the first few outings you can skip bringing a field guide and maybe just have one small notebook.
The overall goal isn’t to turn every birding hike into a grand expedition but instead to be prepared every time you go and it will become second nature. Having tons of stuff doesn’t make a birding trip great. It’s all about having the right stuff.
1.2 – What to Wear
Any outdoor activity can be greatly enhanced by making sure you have the proper gear. There are so many choices of brands and types of gear and you can easily spend a small fortune equipping your child with the latest and greatest gear. But that is highly unnecessary.
What we recommend is focusing on some of the truly essential gear and moving to other stuff as you see fit. The most important consideration is comfort. If the gear doesn’t provide support, warmth, relaxed fit, etc. the journey in the great outdoors will be short-lived.
Boots or sturdy, durable shoes are a good starting point. Birding requires a lot of walking over uneven terrain as well as a great deal of standing in one position. Boots are best if you plan on hiking in a lot of tall, wet grassed areas or muddy trails. They need to be high enough to avoid water cresting over the top as well as waterproof throughout. Wet feet equal bad experience.
For “regular” birding and hiking good shoes are fine. They need not be waterproof but should provide a lot of support and darker colors will provide a longer lasting good look. Some new brands of shoes offer waterproof sneakers or walking shoes that work perfect for birding. If they can be thrown in the washing machine, even better. Sandals, flip-flops, etc. should be avoided since they attract small rocks and sunburn on exposed feet.
For outerwear, layers work best. You can always remove a jacket or sweatshirt but if you go into the field in a t-shirt and it starts to rain, the level of misery will rise quickly. Jeans or other long pants are also a must if you plan on walking through grassy areas or it is a buggy time of year. Shorts do not provide enough cooling to compensate for itchy legs.
Hats and sunscreen are also musts. Even on cloudy days, spending hours in the field without a hat can torture your eyes and sunburn happens even on overcast days. An added bonus for wearing a hat: no worries of messy hair from waking at the crack of dawn.
Hot weather can come up on kids and become a dangerous problem rather quickly. Many kids don’t realize they are feeling the effects of the heat until it is too late. Heat exhaustion can lead to much worse problems and should never be taken lightly.
Here are some seasonal examples of what to wear based on our northern Illinois climate.
Sturdy walking shoes or boots
Cooling bandana (soak in cold water before hiking trip)
Long-sleeves (especially if buggy out)
Long pants – we highly recommend not wearing shorts on a hike because it reduces bug bites, sunburn, and potential for poison ivy or other plant related itchiness
Sturdy walking shoes or boots
Sturdy walking shoes or boots
Balaclava (ski mask or other that covers more of the face)
Gloves or mittens
Just because it is cold out doesn’t mean you can’t go for a bird hike. Bring extra pairs of socks, extra gloves, and hand and feet warmers to ensure extra comfort. Just don’t bundle up so much that walking is uncomfortable. Once you get moving and keep moving staying warm is much easier.
1.3 – Binoculars
Binoculars [also called bins, binocs, field glasses, optics] are one of the most important items in birding and also one of the most difficult for kids to use. Big and bulky binoculars are often cumbersome to use. But high-end binoculars can cost over $1000 (or more). So how do you choose a pair for a kid that may or may not enjoy using them?
For starting out, a good, inexpensive pair will be sufficient. There are several good ones between $80-$150 that will work well enough, especially with young eyes. Some may see this as a pretty big cost for an activity that can be done pretty much anywhere and with out much effort (watching birds) but considering how much other sports cost, this is a good deal for an activity that can easily last a lifetime.
We feel that avoiding ultra-cheap, ineffective bins will have a longtime, positive gain. If the optics don’t work well enough to see moving birds you’ve already lost the young birder to boredom. Binoculars are easy to work and the price differences are directly related to how clear an image you’ll see, along with the magnification, field-of-view, and to a lesser extent, how durable they are.
Note: much of the cost of optics is related to how the lenses are coated. The higher quality, better coatings cost more and last longer while the lower quality are the opposite.
Magnification varies a great deal. The best options are 7x, 8x or 10x. It is a common mistake to try to get a pair with a larger magnification, say 15x, but this actually makes it harder to see birds clearly because it is too difficult to handhold a pair steady. Spotting scopes, used to see far away birds, have 20x and more magnification but are almost always mounted on a tripod so are not as prone to unsteady shaking.
Make sure before heading into the field the bins are adjusted properly including the strap, and that the bins are comfortable around the neck of the child. This will help ensure the trip isn’t cut short because of discomfort. Explain that the bins aren’t a toy but a tool. This is yet another reason not to use cheap and often plastic, colorful bins.
Our recommendation is to check out Eagle Optics’ “Technical Guide” [http://www.eagleoptics.com/articles/technical-guide/] as they have an amazing array of choices and recommendations on which bins will fit your budget. In popular birding magazines there are numerous articles (almost in every issue) explaining in great detail the latest optics so this is another great place to check.
1.4 – Field Guides
The second most important tool for birding is a good field guide. There is a multitude of guides to choose from. We recommend the Kaufman Field Guide to North American Birds because of its completeness and ease of use. The Sibley Guide to Birds is also good because it uses drawings which might appeal to kids more. These are available in Eastern or Western versions. The full guide is too large for the field.
Whatever guide you use, let your child page through the book ahead of time and explain how it is arranged. This is a great time to discuss and bookmark common birds you anticipate seeing.
Tip: Only refer to your field guide to identify a bird in the field after fully observing a bird. More time spent observing field marks and behavior will greatly increase ability for a positive identification, making the connection of what to look for and how to observe birds.
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-existent, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Field Notes are great for keeping Life Lists as well as keeping notes on bird behaviors, travel dreams, trail observations, and more!
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
Section 4 — Going Beyond Birding
The natural world is overflowing with fun and interesting things to discover. Birds are often easily observed but it is also important to spread the focus in as many areas as possible.
Sometimes it will be difficult to find birds but that doesn’t mean you need to stop being outdoors.
Please note: we have not included hunting or fishing (and some other outdoor activities) here not because they are not worthy of pursuing but because they don’t fit the goal of this book: to get kids birding and participating in “non-consumptive” outdoor activities. We fully support responsible hunting and fishing but our expertise is on natural studies, particularly birding.
4.1 – Take a Hike
Birding doesn’t always involve hiking but hiking can almost always involve a little birding. But going for a hike is an excellent excuse to find other fun natural things. Essentially, hiking is just walking in a more natural setting than a typical neighborhood. Most parks of adequate size have trails specifically for hiking.
Before heading out on a trail it is a good idea to have an idea of where the trail goes and how long it is. Many parks now have maps posted online that you can download and print prior to going. Plus, a lot of parks have signs with maps at trailheads along with markers throughout the trail’s route.
Hiking is a great outdoor activity because it is so adaptable. It doesn’t really matter how many kids (and adults) you are with, you can bring the family dog, and you can set your own pace, time, distance, and, within reason, your route. (It’s often a good idea to remain on the trail unless you really know your whereabouts.)
Hiking is also inexpensive. As long as your shoes are comfortable and can withstand the terrain. Wet or rocky conditions may require better, more supportive footwear. But if you plan on hiking a lot this is a great investment and still cheaper compared to other activities.
Hiking also requires no skill level other than basic directional awareness.
Plus, there are an ever-growing number of paved, handicap-accessible trails that offer everyone the ability to get out into some truly natural areas.
Beyond the fun of hiking are several “bonuses” that occur without even trying. Kids with attention difficulties often find being out in nature to improve concentration. Kids with anxiety or stress-related problems find hiking to be calming. The natural setting also provides mental stimulation and encourages critical thinking, questioning, and creativity.
With the growing number of kids facing physical health issues, specifically from being overweight, hiking encourages a healthier lifestyle without feeling like exercise. When you’re on a trail the focus is on the surroundings, exploration, and discovery, not doing a set number of jumping jacks or a timed amount of cardiovascular activity.
The only real downsides to hiking are poorly maintained trails (heavily overgrown with vegetation), situations where there are unwanted activities on or around the trail (biking, shady characters), bad weather, and an overabundance of biting insects.
So if your young one isn’t quite sold on birding, hiking can be a great way to get out there first. And being out in nature is the first step to becoming a birder.
4.2 – Camping Out
Thankfully, there are many local, state, and national parks that encourage camping. Some get overrun with locals looking to party on summer weekends, but usually there are plenty of open spots away from the “riff-raff”.
Camping out is not for everyone but everyone should try it at least once. To get the most out of it, we suggest tent camping with no electricity. You aren’t required to rough it completely, but unplug from all the gadgets of the “real world” and escape for a night, weekend or longer.
It is important to pick a site that is flat and where the ground is soft enough to pound in tent pegs/stakes. If you bring extra blankets you can add padding to make a softer, more comfortable bed beyond just a sleeping bag. Just don’t forget your pillow!
Camping teaches all sorts of skills and takes you back to an age where you had less and needed to do everything for yourself. Water doesn’t come freely out of the kitchen faucet and your home requires a little patience and work to construct. (Although many tents are quite easy to put up, usually taking less than twenty to thirty minutes.)
Cooking outdoors is also a fun treat, even if it just involves roasting hot dogs and making s’mores. Getting a little dirty and dealing with the imperfections of being outside non-stop are challenges that will improve a child’s well-being and attitude for the rest of their lives.
Camping provides a unique opportunity to stay up past dark and listen to night creatures. If you are diligent, you can also find a lot of these night creatures by carefully searching with flashlights. This is a great way to hear owls and if you’re lucky, see them too.
Besides participating in the animal night life this is one of the best opportunities to look at the night sky. This will be much better in more wild places but many campgrounds are removed enough from city lights to provide a quite eye-opening look at the stars. You don’t need to know anything about astronomy (although this is yet another interesting outdoor activity) to appreciate the beauty and awe of the night sky.
As fun as it is to stay up late sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories, it’s also great to wake early in the morning to the chorus of birds. This dawn concert is one of the greatest experiences for a birder and for triggering an ongoing yearning to learn more about the natural world.
Camping affords you the convenience of being in a wild location to fully absorb yourself in nature.
4.3 – Photography
Any form of photography can be done at practically any age. Digital cameras are priced well and most have all the features you need for creative photography.
Starting photography at a young age will keep a child interested in observing and documenting fun things they discover for years to come. A camera that can take good close-up (macro) shots is a plus, enabling photography of small items held in the hand.
As long as the child knows that a camera is not a toy but a tool, they will most definitely care for it. This is something that should be determined on a kid-by-kid basis.
Bird photography is a bit trickier with simple point-and-shoot cameras. Digital SLR cameras and telephoto lenses cost hundreds or thousands of dollars so are not as feasible for younger kids.
However, a point-and-shoot can be used successfully with a spotting scope in what is known as digiscoping. This is one way to get bird photos while spending less money (so long as you already own or plan to purchase a spotting scope).
We explain digiscoping in great detail in Part 2 which is geared toward teenagers.
4.4 – Butterflies and Other Insects
“Butterflying” is another great activity outdoors, especially in areas where there is great diversity of species. Many newer optics enable really close focus distances and are perfect for watching butterflies.
You can also bring a net to catch and release species to better observe and identify. There are numerous books on butterflies and other insects. We recommend the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America and the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.
Surprisingly, kids who have difficulties staying focused in general often are the most sophisticated and dedicated at discovering bugs. If a child strays into this field by all means encourage their wondering mind.
4.5 – Tracking
Tracking has become a lost art but can be extremely fun and lead do some neat discoveries. There are books on tracking and as soon as you learn the basic footprints, new discoveries will come easier.
Which way was that deer going? How many raccoons were in the drying creek bed? Is that a fox or a coyote track?
Along with tracking you can investigate scat (poop), owl pellets, feathers, bones, and more. The outdoor world is limitless in the amount of secrets out there just waiting to be unlocked.
A secondary but related-to activity of tracking is nest or den-building. This involves mimicking a wild animal in ways where the child creates an animal home of the natural surroundings. This need not be completely accurate but by pretending to be an animal it is easier to understand what animals need to survive and how nature works to assist in their survival.
This is a great backyard activity as well because it provides endless outdoor entertainment, creativity, and a place for a child to go to relax and think.
4.6 – Gardening
Gardening is a great way to teach children about nature and food production. It also provides readily available helpers to dig, plant, weed, and harvest saving you much back-breaking work.
Seriously though, planting a vegetable garden improves the likeliness of children eating a wider variety of foods and provides a better understanding of where food comes from. Plus, tending to a garden, including any types of flowers, gives a great sense of fulfillment when it is time to harvest or the flowers are in bloom.
Even if the garden or particular plants do not turn out, protecting and caring for plant life is constant learning through action. Failures are, of course, part of any type of learning experience.
Gardening is also therapeutic for people of all ages. Kids playing in the dirt tend to be calmer and more relaxed (even outside of the garden). Plus, dirt holds all sorts of small life forms waiting to be investigated. Kids that play in the dirt are also thought to be more resistant to illness due to the germs the interact with which helps improve their immune system.
As many adults can attest to, playing in the dirt is always fun!
4.7 – Tree Study
Scientifically known as dendrology, the study of trees never gets dull. In fact, all plant life is infinitely interesting and can often be a welcomed distraction when birding gets slow. Knowing your trees is extremely beneficial to finding birds. It helps determine the habitat and the likeliness of certain birds showing up.
Identifying trees is surprisingly difficult despite that trees don’t fly away (although they do migrate, just not in the same sense as birds). It can be confusing to know what to look for to determine what type of conifer you are standing under or which type of maple is shading your house.
Thankfully, The Sibley Guide to Trees provides an excellent, complete reference to most native (and commonly cultivated) trees of most of North America.
With a fully-loaded, detailed 30 page introduction, this guide begins at the beginning describing what makes a tree a tree and moves along on the taxonomy (how the trees are arranged in the book). These critical “baby steps” are all important for making full use of the guide.
Each component of the tree is discussed with accompanying illustrations and examples from species found throughout the book. The components include: leaves, flowers, fruit, twigs, buds, and bark.
These introductory pages are critical when it comes to knowing what to look for to make the identification.
The guide focuses on the majority of native trees of North America with the exclusion of those found only in southern Florida. This exception could be considered a bit of a fault, like leaving out birds found only in southern Texas. However, Sibley’s decision to do this in favor of commonly cultivated ornamental trees will be much more useful to the majority of tree enthusiasts.
The layout of The Sibley Guide to Trees is familiar to those who use Sibley’s bird guide. This design has proven to be not only visually appealing but functional for digesting the information and making an identification. Pertinent artwork is used for each species, so not all species show the full tree or other components that don’t aid in the identification process.
Some species have an additional highlighted box with interested facts about a tree, such as the Quaking Aspen):
“Groves of Quaking Aspen can all be parts of a single plant, each stem connected to a common root system. These single organisms can cover many acres, and one in Utah is estimated to be 80,000 years old, possibly the oldest living thing on Earth . . .” pg. 230
Range maps are also included to assist in knowing where to find nearly identical species.
With a better understanding of trees and other plant life birding becomes easier and the natural world becomes even more desirable to spend countless hours outside marveling in it.
There are many other activities that gets kids outside which is really the whole point. As soon as kids are outside they begin to absorb nature’s wonders in ways they can never learn from television, books, or schoolwork. So go outside and help open kids’ eyes to the real world.
I hope you enjoyed this guide. The best thing you can do as soon as possible is simply head out on a hike. Whether you have all the tools, know much about birds yourself, or if it is too hot or cold, spending time in nature has unbelievable benefits that will last a lifetime.
Birding is not geeky and kids are suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. We need more naturalists and more advocates for birds and all wildlife. Birds are great indicators of habitat health. Conserving their habitat is perhaps the best thing you can do environmentally.
I began birding at a very young age and have the wonderful responsibility to teach my two young boys about birding and nature in general. It only takes a spark to set a fire of lasting enjoyment of nature. We truly feel sorry for those kids that miss out and never see a Northern Harrier browsing for rodents or hear the haunting sound of a Wood Thrush. Nature is too wonderful not to enjoy.