Encouraging Young Birders
Birds & Children - Introducing Them to Each Other
On October 13th, 2004 I sent out an email to the CalBirds and Countybirders Listserves with the following question:
Do any of you have any suggestions on how to get your own children excited about birds and become a bird watcher too?
Here is a summary of their suggestions (full responses below, included with permission from contributors)
Build bird feeders and bird baths with your children and then place them around your yard. Keep a pair of binoculars handy for your children to easily reach so they can look at the feeders and baths. Make sure your children have a pair of binoculars of their own (used is good). (Young children may have a hard time with binoculars though.)
Spend time with them outdoors making sure to point out more than just birds. Make sure they feel your enthusiasm for all things natural. Large birds and colorful birds are good to focus on at first. Avoid dragging your children around with you while you try to chase yet another lifer or county bird. (boring)
Introduce them to birding videos and computer programs that they can watch a little at a time.
Chet Ogan - My best advise? Provide the opportunities, the equipment (used is good), the expertise, but don't push it on them.
Elizabeth Rinnander - I can tell you how my husband, Dexter Kelly, who is currently president of L A Audubon, got hooked at that age. His folks put bird feeders all around the yard and bought him some bird cards. From these he learned to read! As soon as he could handle them, they got him his own binoculars. It was that simple!
Doug Shaw - Does your local Audubon chapter have a Pee-Wee Audubon group? The local chapter does here with special activities geared towards their age group and field trips. When I was young ( started serious birding at age 16 ), bird feeders in the yard sparked my enthusiasm. How about some video birding program for the computer or VCR / DVD? There are many educational and interactive tutorials / games on birding available.Are you familiar with Project Wild teaching materials? I believe those are great interactive materials for teaching environmental values to young children. Does your 3 year old watch any of the television nature programs on PBS or the Discovery Channel? How about a subsciption to Ranger Rick Magazine?
David Suddjian - As a dad of three boys, this is something I'm working through, too.
I think the love of birds and birding is for most a passion that is "caught and not taught." Some people are naturally inclined (or particularly gifted) towards nature study, in which I would include most sorts of birding. I have a friend that refers to them as "scientific - nature minded from birth." Some of these are drawn to it from an early age, while it may lay latent in others until sparked by something (as was my case). Still others may develop an appreciation for nature study in their adult years, although perhaps it was not their natural inclination.
My three sons are ages 11, 6 and 3. None are "birders" (yet). But according to their age they know a great deal about birds, are genuinely interested in them, and appreciate them for what they are. My 11 year old knows far more about birds than I did at his age, or actually until I was an adult. Videos in particular have been very helpful learning tools for them, tools that I did not have as a child or teen.
I do not push birding at all. They see my passion and interest, and I think they appreciate birds to the degree they do largely because of that. We have spent a lot of time outdoors together, where I could share some of the things to be seen, and information about them. Sometimes I challenge my older son to look at a bird and identify it, and he does know a fair amount about ID already (by sight and sound) without ever really going birding on his own. They all have favorite birds (Peregrine, Acorn Woodpecker, and Mallard, respectively).
I do not think most young children are motivated to undertake the focused observation and attention to details that birding (as we practitioners think of it) calls for. Unfortunately for many, a steady diet of TV and video games tends to dull the senses, making it harder for children to have the patience to make the effort to actively observe something in nature. I think the best things are these: lots of outdoor time in natural areas, pointing out birds and other things and sharing your interest and appreciation of their beauty and fascination, and over the years teaching the basic skills that lead one to be a good and careful observer.
This very question about sparking an interest in birding in children is one that I'm going to be dealing with in a new way. I have just begun to teach a class on natural history for homeschooled jr. high and high school students. The class is very much a field class, with an initial focus on plants, turning later to a focus on birds. None of the students have any developed knowledge of nature study or field identification, although some at least seem to have a genuine interest in the subject. It will be interesting to see how things develop, and hopefully to see a spark catch fire for some of them.
Jamie M. Chavez - One of mine is interested, the other is not. In retrospect I realize that I spent too much time away from my older daughter "chasing" rarities, a habit I have pretty much given up. This only caused her to become disconnected from Dad and jealous of birds and birding in general. Understandably so.
This is my story, not necessarily the same for everyone. On the other hand, my younger son enjoys looking at birds because I have spent more time showing him common, large birds. You know, not the kind we don't typically chase- herons, egrets, hawks, etc. His interest has piqued because they are (usually) easy to see and I spend time with him rather than feeding my own insatiable need to chase. I believe the key, as much as individual interest among children, is the time you spend watching together.
Judy Meredith - I have some advice from what worked for me. I learned a lesson early on that too much pushing can destroy interest. I tried to take my son on CBCs a couple of times and it was WAY too much. And I don't call it BIRDING too much, we call it going for a hike and do just that but birds will be there and will add to the fun.
Introducing very small amounts in the context of age related fun works best. I.e. taking them to climb on rocks and then also casually noticing the birds that live in those rocks works great. Focus on the big birds, seen easily by naked eyes is best til they are 8 or 9 as binos don't work well for the younger kids, their eyes aren't quite developed right for that, heads aren't big enough for the eyepeices or something. Hummers at the window were great for young eyes, he sat on the kitchen counter and saw them from 20 inches away. He liked that. Well for 3 year old kids I think big birds or up close birds and watching what they do is the ticket.
I took a bunch of 1st graders on a hike which was supposed to be exploring nests and I had carefully scouted for several around the park where our walk was to happen. My plan was boring and academic and not playful. Well, we didn't get past the 2nd nest as birds were around, carrying grass etc and the kids were fascinated by things I took for granted, carrying in the mouth and seeing how a nest is built. So I think we all just played with blades of grass and it ended up being a very effective spontaneous experience, I could have never planned it. Well, I am exaggerating now. I think it was a bit clumsy but the birds pulled it off to be fun.
A few years later, one of the boys saw me somewhere at school or something and came running up to tell me something about a robin in his yard. So some of it is just being outdoors and letting nature bring on the birds!!!
So my advice is to cool it, if they see that you are passionate about something and they admire you, they might like birding when they are over being teenagers who just groan at everything about adults.
My son is 20 and he will never be a birder but he might work for some conservation projects, and often some bird ends up being part of a photo he's taken, he asks about identification of a bird from an outing in the mountains, and he is aware of birds on his own terms. He wouldn't go birding with me but now he smiles patiently when I screech to a stop and pull over to check out a raptor or something. He has asked to borrow my scope a couple of times and who knows if he is even looking at birds but I want him to have his hands on optics and see nature close up. Well, maybe I am still having too much of an agenda but I am trying hard not to force anything birdy on him.
Mary Freeman - Introduce your son to outdoor activities and hope you have pets around the house. I grew up with dogs, cats, fish, budgies, canaries, chickens and all of my family loved animals. I currently own a parrotlet, the first after owning numerous budgies. Get him to love animals and the outdoors and point out birds to him whenever you head out as well. Let him know about the other critters as well.
Tell you son that if he wants to make friends and travel cheaply, become a birder! I've had the best times piling into a car with friends on either a chase or a day of birding. With sharing costs, it becomes a rather cheap and all around fun outing to new country and sharing it all with your pals!!! No matter how much time goes by, when we get together, we reminisce our fond memories. Not to mention the new friends you meet in far away place who may offer you a free stay!
Also, if you can, get your son to touch a real live bird, not just a duck or chicken. See if you can locate a banding station and get him to touch a real, live and wild bird!!!
Daryl Coldren - I'm 16 now, and have been birding since I was 6. Though I was always interested in nature even as a baby, birds really took hold because of my mom. We lived overseas for the first 5 years of my life, and she was always bringing me out to look through her bins. We moved to the East coast when I was about 5. Her best friend lived very close by and was also a birder; whenever they went birding, I would get to tag along with my plastic, red bins that made things farther away. Then for my 6th birthday they did the best thing they could for me: bought me a pair of real bins that fit my eyes, granted they were only about 100 dollars, but they were magic at the time. Having all the intensity of a little kid, and having something that brought the natural world so close was all I needed. What I would recommend for your son would be to make nature as fun as you can for him. Take him outside to look at the plants and birds in your yard or a nearby park. When he is old enough (if he's not already) take him birding with you to look at something easy like waterfowl, something flashy like a Yellow Warbler, or something loud like cranes, anything that would capture his imagination. Colorful posters could be good too. Perhaps get him some toy bins that he could play with, and when he's old enough a pair that will fit his eyes. Then let the imagination of a young boy take care of the rest.
Randall in Chico - I was just thinking about how I began to get interested in birds when I was in 4th grade.
I was an Iowa Farm Boy and was isolated from other children my age during summer vacations. My playmate was nature and on the farm I had time to observe a lot ot the birds.I remember being down by the creek and sitting next to a female cardinal so close that I could have touched her and I watched her as the sun sat and she fell asleep. I remember my first siting of an Eastern Screedh Owl as it surprised me flying up right next to me at dusk. My first one and it left an imprint in my mind and is still my favorite bird today even though I must settle for the kennicotti counterpart here in Chico. I remember also as a 10 year old sitting and watching at close range Northern Flickers(then Yellow-shafted or as dad called them yellow hammers) doing their courtship rituals and pairing off and settling territorial disputes. I remember raising a brood of young house wrens whose mother was hit by a car. I would go out an catch grasshoppers and feed them and they would respond with wide open mouths just like I was their mother. They were inside the house and mother didn't seem to mind if they pooped on the window curtains! It was quite a tramatic event when we finally released them on their own. My parents saw my interest in birds and bought me a pair of 7x50 Tasco's and that really got me going. I remember my first bird viewed was a Starling.I still have them ! Now I didn't have to get really close to the birds. In 4th grade my teacher saw my interest also and encouraged me by having the class write a report on their favorite bird- I chose Red-tailed Hawk and still have the report to this day. I was the only one that retained the interest. The other kids would tease me by calling me "Bird brain" It just wasn,t cool to be a birder in school. Mother took me to Oskaloosa one day and bought me the pocket sized Golden Guide to Birds for $1 and then I saved my money up to Buy the big Birds of North America for $8(Seemed like a fortune back then!) That was how I learned about birds as a youth and I would trace the pictures of the birds and color them. I still have the orignal books and my drawings. I had a pair of Screech owls on the farm that were just about like pets and I put a nest box up for them and helped them feed those hungry youngsters. I could hold a mouse in my hand and the male would swoop by and take it right out of my hand. I could go on and on but the point I want to make is that I had no choise but to draw close to nature because there was nothing else to "sidetrack" my attention. Todays youth are so absorbed in electronic and technical noise that they can't hear the voice of nature calling them. For your three year old I suggest not letting the noise of technology deafen his ears- take him away from that and spend time with him in the theatre of Nature and just LISTEN! Teach him to hear even the faint whisping of a Cedar Waxwing and then point the bird out to him telling him that was the bird making the call he heard and then show him a picture of how beautiful they are and if he can draw any thing that resembles a bird encourage him to trace a picture of it and then color it and then tell him something interesting about them thats relative to our own lives. At dinner time feed each other cherries and tell him this is how Cedar Waxwings show love towards each other by sharing! I could go on and on but the key thing to remember is proper environment!
Steve Deschenes - I think it's lot like the old scenario of forcing the kids to take piano lessons... they often tend to hate it instead (though they still benefit from the exposure & discipline). However, as they grow older and decide for themselves what's interesting to them and what helps them relax they will often reflect on what they remember YOU doing.
My 2 "children" (19 & 26) haven't shown much interest either. In fact my youngest makes fun of me :>O. However, sometimes it's the places you take them when you go birding. They may not be looking for the birds, but they still enjoy the outdoors with Dad! This is currently the experience with my son who really enjoyed our last two outings. He may be getting his OWN binoculars soon!
This is how I got interested. My Father-in-Law had a pair of binoculars and he'd occasionally point out the bluebirds, hawks, etc. when we camped. It was OK, but I didn't really get excited about birding until about 10yrs later. I was actually more interested in photography and birds were an interesting "target". Now photography is fun, but I absoulutely love birding. I still remember the times my Father-in-Law and I shared this relaxing hobby together. In fact, we still do.
Summary: Don't push too hard - but let YOUR enjoyment invite the kid's interest. It'll happen sooner or later, after all, who can resist a Red-Breasted Nuthatch, or a Mountain Blue Bird, or a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, or...