Guest Post by Bryony Angell, Backyard Birder and Blogger
Summer is here and we’re all spending more time outside–playing at the park, hiking, swimming, experiencing the warm air, the shimmering leaves and the blue sky. And for me, this time of year brings out my binoculars for birdwatching with kids–or birding as we birders call it!
Believe it or not, my six year old son can be called upon to name the birdsong we hear in the mornings outside our bedroom. “Chickadee?” he guesses. Yes! Backyard birds are all around us, singing and raising babies this time of year, and if we lend an ear we can often see them too.
I’ve been observing and listening to birds with my son since he was an infant. Now he rolls his eyes at my bird-nerdiness, but an awareness of our feathered friends has stuck in our family. So how can you get started birdwatching with kids?
1. Start birdwatching with kids by observing wherever you are!
Often the birding is circumstantial — while we are doing yard work together or playing in the sandbox. Once we stop and look closely at our surroundings, we start to see and hear more, cut through the layers of white noise and distraction and notice the life all around us.
I don’t always worry about identifying the bird — it is the activity of seeing and observing that is the fun part for kids. When watching birds, let kids know to keep a respectful distance (never intentionally intrude on birds in order to “see better” or “get a good photo”). The more we let birds be themselves in our yard, the more comfortable they will feel and the more often they will visit. And once birds are comfortable, they might allow you to get closer as time goes by.
2. Put up a feeder
There is nothing quite like birdwatching with kids at your feeder. Once you create a space for you and your child to watch birds, it’s like watching a movie! Putting up feeders will really bring these birds out of the bushes, literally, and because they have babies to feed right now they can be especially active at feeders this time of the year!
Feeders are available everywhere from hardware stores to specialty nature shops.
Here are some important tips for inviting birds to safely enjoy your feeders and yard.
- Buy a feeder which can be easily cleaned (taken apart and scrubbed with soap 4 times a year at a minimum to get rid of mold). Clean often underneath the feeder to discourage rats and squirrels.
- Place a seed feeder in an area where there is tree or shrub cover for a bird to retreat in case there are predators around (such as a hawk).
- Place a feeder well away from windows where a retreating bird might strike glass.
- If there are cats in your yard, place the feeder in a place inaccessible to your feline friend. Better yet, make your cat an indoor cat.
- Buy a dome cover to protect the seed feeder from rain, which accelerates mold developing in your feeder.
Pick seeds, suet, peanuts, or thistle, depending on where you are in the country and what kind of birds are in your area. Seeds attract finches, chickadees, nuthatches and sparrows, for example. Suet will attract bushtits and woodpeckers. Peanuts attract jays and cardinals. Thistle will attract pine siskins. And a hummingbird feeder will attract hummingbirds of course!
3. Learn your backyard birds
North America has over 900 bird species naturally occurring north of the Mexican border. They range from tiny hummingbirds to the largest birds in our skies, the Sandhill crane.
Start with what you see just right around you in your yard or nearby park.
Some of my favorite commonly seen, year-round resident birds are found all over the country’s urban and suburban areas. These five groups can get you started depending on where you live.
- Black-Capped Chickadee and Chestnut-Backed Chickadee: This bird will come to suet and seed, and will nest in boxes put out for them
- Wrens: Feeds on the ground and lower canopy of woods, has a sassy little tail wagging and a distinct white eye stripe and scolding style of vocalizing.
- House Finch: Reddish head and shoulders, comes to feeders.
- Steller’s Jay (west of the Rockies) or Blue Jay (East of the Rockies): Sassy and flashy birds about the size of a robin, with a crest and blue plumage.
- American Robin, and its cousins the Thrushes (Hermit, Varied, Swainsons, etc): large songbirds with bright black eyes, ground feeder, beautiful song in the springtime.
4. Go on a bird walk
What if you want to see a greater variety of birds than right where you live? Here are some tips for guaranteed birdwatching with kids where the feathered friends live. Wear comfy clothes in layers, not too bright (to remain non-threatening to the birds), and galoshes, sandals or sneakers depending on the locale! I imagine myself in something safari chic when I go out birding, to make it fun.
Then, get out there!
- Near water: Birds rely on water for food (bugs, fish, everything else). Think rivers, ponds, lakes, marshes, deltas, lagoons, beaches. Fresh water, brackish water, salt water–you’ll find birds near water.
- Trees: Birds rely on healthy parks and forests for food at every level of the canopy, so look on the ground, in the bushes, branches and in the air.
- Farm country: Birds are easier to see in agricultural areas as space is wide open. Birds are attracted to waste grain, the insects and rodents that are also attracted to that waste grain, as well as the water provided by irrigation.
Local nature centers or Audubon societies may host family bird walks, which are another way to learn about birds and not have to second guess yourself! I’ve learned everything I know from friends who are more knowledgeable than I am!
Binoculars and a good bird guide will be a great investment if you decide you want to get serious about birdwatching with kids. I like the now-classic David Sibley guides, for the different illustrated views of each bird. Find a version you like that is specific to your region and it will be the guide to you and your child getting to know your neighbors in a whole new way! To learn more about birds where you live, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds is a great resource.
Bryony’s favorite school memory is the friendship with her school’s librarian, Mrs. Potter, who let Bryony retreat to the library to read books instead of going to recess, thus fostering her passion for reading. Now Bryony writes her own content as a journalist for magazines and as a lifestyle blogger about being an urban girl birder with her young son Vireo (named for a bird!). Bryony and her family live in Seattle, WA.