Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Birds for the Young

In response to yesterday's post, Lena wrote:
It sounds like an interesting idea to enjoy with your little ones. I wonder if a 5 year old is too young for this? Maybe we can start in tiny ways. Thanks for the inspiration.
The answer to Lena's comment is, yes, there are birding activities that are appropriate for every age. Our son Ben was four years old when we started birding.

Here are some activities that children between four and ten years old will enjoy. These can become school lessons:

1. Help shop for bird feeder. Break this down into small increments of about 20 minutes each. For example, one day you can look at pictures of bird feeders online and talk about which styles you like. The next day, you can go to a store to buy a feeder, or at least look for one, and end with a snack and recess outdoors. If you want to compare prices and shop further, just do one store each day. The following stores are good candidates: Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-mart, the local Farm Bureau.

Make sure to plan options for installing your feeder before you shop, so you can buy the hanging equipment, too.

2. Install the feeder. Gather your supplies ahead of time. Bundle everyone up and go outdoors. Let the kids run and play for about 15 minutes first. Then give them specific, simple jobs to do to help you put up the feeder. Finish off the work with a book or a cup of hot apple cider.

Place the feeder within 15 feet of the window through which you will watch the birds, so that the birds will not crash through your window. With just 15 feet of distance, they can't pick up enough speed in flight to kill themselves on the window or break the glass. You can see and identify your birds, but you won't be so close that you frighten them away. Feeders should be high off the ground and covered with a baffle to protect the birds from predators. You can place the feeder on a pole or a hanging bar. You can also hang it from a sturdy tree branch. It's especially beneficial to the birds to have the feeder within 20 feet of shrubs and trees that provide some cover for them. They will be able to sit in the cover until they are sure it's safe to be on the feeder.

3. Once the feeder is up, shop for the seed. Sunflower seed is the type that all birds eat. It's not every bird's favorite, but they all eat it, so this is the best choice for bringing the largest variety of birds to your yard. We put cayenne pepper in our feeders with the seed, because it limits how much seed the squirrels eat. With cayenne pepper, the squirrels don't stay away entirely, but they will not eat all the seed. By the way, it's important to keep seed in the feeder through the month of March.

4. Include books. Make a library trip to check out books on birds for the age of your child. Purchase a copy of a beginner's guide to birds. We used a small paperback Golden guide for our boys. I strongly suggest that each child two years and older have a guide book of some kind. The first time birds come to the window, each child will want a bird guide. This is true even for the child who isn't reading yet. You can help your child find the bird in the guidebook and then mark that page with a small post-it note.

5. Visit this website: All About Birds. By clicking on "Which 51?" on the homepage you can choose a bird, view its picture, read about it, listen to its songs, and watch a video of it. Prepare by identifying some of these common birds: blue jay, cardinal, mourning dove, sparrow, crow, robin, and chickadee. I suggest that young children will enjoy this best if you learn about one bird each day. You can also return to this site to review a bird you have seen at your feeder. This reinforces your familiarity with a species.

6. Spend 10-20 minutes watching the birds at your window after breakfast. This is the best time to see the birds. Supper time works well, too, about an hour before sundown, but I found that mornings worked best for the birds and for the kids, too.

7. Draw and color pictures of birds. Label the parts of the bird: beak, wing, feet, eye, breast, tail. I still have pictures of birds that my boys drew when they were four and five years old. A simple coloring book like these can be fun to use. From a single book, you can photocopy the picture of a bird, one for each child. A computer scanner can enable you to enlarge the picture if you wish. My sons found it easier to sketch a bird from a simple black-line drawing in a coloring book. After sketching the bird's outline, they could fill it in with color.

8. Check the library for educational videos on birds and birding. You can watch the video for a few minutes each day for a week. This works better than trying to watch the entire video at once.

9. Visit a zoo or pet store. Young children enjoy watching bird behavior and labeling the parts of real birds while the birds remain fairly stationary in their cages. One of the challenges of watching wild birds is that movements and noises send them away. It's hard for children to get close enough to really study a bird in the wild.


There are several keys to making birding an enjoyable experience for young children:

1. Prepare beforehand. Gather your supplies. Be organized about it. Have a job for each child to do. This lets you focus your attention on the kids and what they are doing. If you are distracted by preparing, and your kids have to stand there and wait, they will become bored. This sets the family up for conflict.

2. Focus on action. Think primarily in terms of what your kids can do. This is how they learn best. Can they pick the feeder, pour the seed in, hold a hammer, or clean a baffle? They will not want to sit still and just listen to you instruct them.

3. Plan to keep sessions short: 10-20 minutes each. Unless a child strongly urges you to continue, make an ending while everyone is still having fun. Then do some more on the next day. Larger tasks can be broken up into smaller components. The point is not to be efficient and get it done, but to enjoy the experience together.


Can you suggest another birding activity or idea? Do you have any questions?


  1. Oh this is one of our favorite family activities! May I suggest the Audubon First Field Guide: Birds? A delightful book for young ones to start out with and one we often still pull out for its beautiful photos and basic information.

    An observer window feeder is wonderful because it attaches to your window and you can see the birds so very close. We put both of ours back up this time last year to entertain the baby in his high chair. All the info on this particular feeder is on my blog. Just search for "our favorite feeder".

    The children have learned all the names and calls of our eastern birds with the Bird Songs book by Les Beletsky.

    Sorry so long a comment... just a particular passion of ours!

  2. I am delighted to hear about your enjoyment of birding.

    Thank you for sharing with us!


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