Make a Fine Feathered Friend
Backyard Birding for Kids
Are your kids missing their friends and family? Are they spending too much time sitting in front of a computer? Well, birds make great COVID companions, and they will only socialize with you outside! While it might seem odd to look for birds in the winter, it’s actually a great time to see them. Fewer leaves for them to hide behind, plus birds don’t hibernate. The ones that don’t migrate are out and about all season long doing their bird things… eating bugs, drinking water, watching for predators, bathing, establishing territory, etc. To befriend the birds in your yard, or even out the window, all your kid needs is a little birdseed and some patience.
I’m no ornithologist, but I do love watching birds, especially with my kids. Birds are some of the easiest animals to observe in the wild and also in the city. Using binoculars you can watch them from a distance or up close with your naked eyes as they eat, court, feed their young, and defend their territories. What other animal gives your kids such a fabulous opportunity for observing and learning? You can give your kids some basic birding information and fun Trackers Missions, then send them outside to observe and connect with their new fine feathered friends.
What Does it Look Like?
The first step to befriending the birds in your backyard is figuring out who they are. You are going to need a bird guidebook for your area (recommendations at the end of the blog). To get started, you can use this Audubon list of the most common birds to look for in your backyard.
Trackers Mission: Have your child write down or draw 3 birds they could find in their backyard in a Tracking Journal (any journal will do). You can also print out this awesome Trackers Backyard Bird Scavenger Hunt and turn bird identification into a fun game.
Smaller or Bigger than a Robin?
The American robin is one of the most common and recognizable birds your kids will likely see. With its reddish-orange breast and grey body, it’s hard to miss. It’s also a great bird to compare sizes with. After all, birds won’t let you go up and measure them. Answering the question “Was it bigger or smaller than a robin?” is an excellent baseline for kids to start identifying birds.
Trackers Mission: Have your child look up how big a robin is (hint: about 10 inches long) and write it in their Tracking Journal. Then compare other birds they see to it, answering the question “Was it bigger or smaller than a robin?” They could even guess at each bird’s size, based on the answer. By the way, if they’re in your yard (which they probably are), a robin can be the first of their three birds!
Draw Its Silhouette
Often you only see a bird in the shadows of a bush or high up in a tree with the sun backlighting it. Although this makes it hard to see colors and features, most birds have distinctive silhouettes. From the upturned tail of a wren to the vertical posture of a hawk, to the chubby cuteness of an owl, learning to draw bird silhouettes will help a child identify the bird by shape. Cornell University has some awesome birding resources for kids, including this webpage about how to identify birds from their silhouettes.
Trackers Mission: Have your child draw silhouettes of the 3 birds they are observing.
What are Its Field Marks?
“Field marks” are just a fancy way of saying a bird’s unique patterns, colors, and features that are used to tell it apart from other birds. As in, crows are black, robins have a red breast, chickadees have a white stripe across their black face. One reason birds have field marks is so they can recognize members of their own species. We humans also use field marks to tell different kinds of birds apart. Field marks are features often tied to an evolutionary adaptation. The shape of the beak tells you what that bird eats. The shape of the feet help you figure out where it lives and how it forages or hunts. Coloring is related to camouflage or breeding and social behavior. Cornell University has another great webpage all about bird field marks.
Trackers Mission: Have your child write down as many field marks and features as they notice for the 3 birds they are observing. They can make a hypothesis about how those field marks and features might relate to each bird’s particular adaptations. Lastly, they can check their guidebooks to see if their hypothesis was right.
Where Does it Live?
Learning where a bird lives can tell you a lot about how it lives. Some birds live and nest close to the ground because that’s where they forage. Other birds live high in the trees because they eat in the treetops. And still, other birds move between earth and sky, like a hawk that plucks its prey from the ground. Where a bird lives also determines what disruptions can trip their alarms. A ground-dwelling bird may alarm for a human or a dog. A bird in the trees may alarm for a raptor.
Trackers Mission: In the backyard, have your kids look and listen and find where the birds are. There’s one in a tree. There’s one in a shrub. There’s one on the ground. Write down where they saw each bird and think about why they might be in those locations. What kind of territory does each bird stay in? Draw a map in your Tracking Journal, a picture of your yard with each bird’s territory marked. Kids can give each bird a number and if they see the same bird again, they put its number on the map again in the new spot. Eventually, they’ll see the bird returning to the same spots day after day. The area those spots encompass can be its territory.
What Does it Sound Like?
Learning to understand bird language is a powerful tool for kids, unlocking many mysteries of the forest and fostering deeper connections with nature. Kids can learn about bird language right in their backyard. Start by noticing the difference between a song and a call. Songs are longer, more melodic, and are usually associated with territory and courtship. Many bird songs sound beautiful and make us happy. Bird calls, on the other hand, are terse and used for specific purposes, like mates calling each other while foraging, territorial aggression, nest protection, or to sound an alarm.
When a bird is singing, that means things are at their “baseline” (normal). There is no perceived threat in the bird world. Knowing a bird’s song helps you identify it. But when a bird is calling — especially an alarm call — you know that there is a disruption in Birdland. This is an opportunity to be a bird detective, asking: What is amiss? Is there some danger lurking? What in tarnation is bothering that bird? “With practice and repetition,” Ryan explains, “Bird Language becomes clearer and tells you more about your surroundings. The birds may be telling you there’s a cat walking behind the fence. Or that a hawk is sitting atop a nearby tree. Or a bear is headed toward you on the path. Pay attention to this. This is bird language.”
By learning to understand bird language, kids can get clued in on the action happening all around them. After all, every neighborhood has deadly cats skulking around the bushes looking to kill unaware birds. Predators and prey… life and death struggles… all right there in our backyards. It’s like a Mutual of Omaha episode (remember those!?!).
Trackers Mission: Have your kids sit quietly while watching and listening to the birds. Observe the birds’ body language. Do they seem tense and alert? Relaxed and happy? Listen to their voices. Do you think they are singing or calling? Encourage kids to make connections between what they see and hear from the birds and what is happening around them. Send them to the Cornell University bird sound database to learn the songs and calls of their 3 birds.
Every budding naturalist needs a blank journal to sketch their specimens, draw their maps, and record their observations. There are unending activities your kids can do outside with nothing more than a pencil and a blank journal. They can draw every bird they see, ID them, and write the bird’s name. They can draw their silhouettes, sketch out their territory, and describe the sound of their call and song. They can record other cool facts they learn about each bird as they are doing this research.
Speaking of research, if your child has the makings of a true bird nerd, encourage them to dive deeper and learn more with these resources:
- Trackers birding classes — expert instructors will ignite your kids’ passion for birding and teach them everything from bird language to identifying local species.
- All About Birds — this website by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology helps you ID birds, learn all about them, listen to recordings of their songs and calls, and watch videos of their behavior. Super comprehensive.
- Audubon for Kids — chock full of fun facts and activities all about birds.
- Family Bird Quests — part of the Cornell U website, this page has tons of fun birding activities for families to do together.
- eBird — track and upload all your bird sightings.
- Merlin — upload a photo or answer 5 questions to discover “What’s that bird?”
- Audubon Bird Guide — a digital guide with tons of images and bird sounds.
- The Sibley’s Guide to Birds — this is a book for adults, but it’s comprehensive and beloved by the birders.
- Audubon Birding Adventures for Kids
- The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America
- National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Birds
- National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America
- Look at That Bird!: A Young Naturalist’s Guide to Pacific Northwest Birding
I’m really excited about this last series because it’s specific to the Pacific NW and fun for kids. Plus the author is a former Trackers writer.
Birding is a fantastic outdoor activity you can do with your kids, even in the cold days of winter. I hope you can find some time this week to get outside and help your kids use their Whiskers, learn to understand Bird Language and make some fine feathered friends.
Next week’s blog will have more backyard birding fun — Part 2 – How to feed and get closer to your backyard birds.
Backyard Birding Scavenger Hunt [Free]
Start your birding journey by checking off these common birds as you find them. Our Trackers Guide, Ryan, created this fantastic scavenger hunt you and your kids can enjoy right outside your home. Just print it out and grab something to write as you spot birds.