Family Friday: (Watching) For the Birds

Lucas Miller begins the new year with another fun and inexpensive activity that will get you and your kids out into nature. The Christian Science Monitor’s gardening section recently shared planting advice in Annuals and Perennials that Attract Birds to Your Yard so, if you have wee ones, know you can also explore the world of birding by bringing nature to you. This month I’m thinking about birdwatching, or just “birding” as it’s usually called by the pro’s. Yes, there are professional birdwatchers.

I will freely admit that I’m a very poor birder. I was a reptile and amphibian guy in my college zoology days and completely obsessed with sea turtles. I loved seeing birds but didn’t have an overwhelming temptation to be able to identify them. Since then, however, I’ve had the privilege to spend some time with some great birders and they have me paying more attention to our fine feathered friends. I’m still pretty poor at identifying them but I appreciate that it’s something I can do wherever I am: driving down the road, on a walk, paddling in my brand-new kayak (finally!!!!), or even sitting on the living room couch. Birds are just everywhere and, when you learn to identify the 20-30 most common species in your area—cardinals, mourning doves, red-tail hawks, turkey vultures, chickadees, etc., it helps keep you tuned into the natural world a little more. You’ll also be much more likely to notice when something unusual does cross your path and you might even find yourself a little excited by it all. I’ve seen kids get positively obsessed with birding so it’s good to at least give your kids a chance to participate in the pastime. So here are a couple of quick points from a guy who likes birds but is never going to be a “pro:” 1) Get yourself a good bird guide. I like the Sibley Guide to Birds (there regional editions that are smaller/cheaper), but check out the guides by Peterson, National Geographic, National Wildlife Federation, and Audubon Society, too; you may find you prefer one of them (some have photos, others illustrations). These are just a pleasure to browse and your kids will do so if they’re close at hand. Just remember the adage, “look at the bird, not the book.” That is, take note of as many markings and features as you can while the bird’s before you. Open the book after it has flown off if you want to check yourself or learn more. 2) Give birding software a try. Our Birds from Thayer Birding Software is great. It allows you to see a number of photos and hear their calls rather than try to figure out the often baffling written descriptions in the books. There’s a wealth of other information and you can even take quizzes. I hear there are some good phone apps, too, although I have not tried any. Leave a comment if you know of any worthwhile ones. 3) Get some optics (a.k.a. “binoculars” to the non-birder). Kids just love looking through them so make sure whatever you put in their hands can be dropped and/or broken without too much heartache. A little magnification is fine; too much and it’s hard to get the bird in the scope and the more the view will shake. Another tip: maintain your gaze on the bird while you lift the optics up to your eyes. This way you’ll be pointed pretty much in the right direction already and you won’t look so much like the other bird-novices who look away, grab the binoculars, and then rubberneck like crazy while they try to find that bird. 4) Watch the birds. It sounds silly but birding should be about seeing what they’re doing and not just identifying them. I personally just feel like an ignoramous when the focus is on naming as many species as possible. I find it more fun to try and discover something curious about them. Take note of how they use their beaks and how they walk and perch. Do they soar or do they have to flap their wings a lot? Notice the different kinds of tails and wings they have and see if you can tell how they might affect their flight. Also, watch for the interactions between birds; they can be amusing and/or amazing. Have you ever seen a group of little birds mobbing and chasing off a great big hawk? Have you seen a male bird strutting his stuff to impress the ladies and show up another male? There’s a good reason birding is one of America’s fastest growing pastimes—it’s just plain fun. So set your eyes on the skies and see what you can see! Lucas is an award winning children’s author and songwriter from Austin, Texas. He contributes a monthly column to Greening Families; this is his post for January. Check him out at

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