Hear ye, hear ye, all ye RDI families! Believe it or not, bird watching can be a great activity for framing RDI objectives or just plain family fun! You do not have to be an expert in birds to get started. In fact, part of the joy of birdwatching is not knowing much at all and making discoveries for yourself! You do not have to live near a nature center to see our feathered friends (yes, in time, you will grow to think of them as friends). I live right in the middle of a rural town with two gas stations, a storage facility, two stores, a former dialysis center, a church with several buildings, and four houses on my busy block!
You do not need a web camera or special equipment. This battered, old, taped-up camera (with the zoom set to the highest level, without flash, pictures take through my sometimes clean kitchen window) has produced the bird pictures on my blog! Then, I crop, resize, or adjust the color as needed. When I was busy trying to catch the painted bunting in action a few weeks back, I put the video camera on the back porch and let it rip for thirty minutes!
Become a Good Guide
To scaffold your children in watching birds, you need to become a good guide and that means getting to know your birds. When I first started homeschooling in the dark ages (1995), I could recognize obvious birds in my yard, but not much more than robin, cardinal, blue jay, and crows. When we moved to a house in Colorado with bird feeders and bird boxes, I caught the bird-watching bug. I bought a bird book and began watching them from my kitchen window through some binoculars. Very gradually, I began to recognize them based on several factors. I keep on hand a local bird book and a national field guide for traveling.
The first thing you need to do is attract birds by supplying food and water in a place you can view from a window. We have a bird bath, a seed feeder, a suet feeder, and a nectar feeder for hummingbirds in Spring. Great daily lifestyle activities are filling the bath with clean water and making sure all feeders are full. You can either buy feeders (an outing with potential for framing objectives) or make your own. You can figure out what birds you may attract this time of year by plugging your town into the 2008 Great Backyard Bird Count results. You and your child can talk about what kind of birds you would like to feed and choose a feeder type, bird food, and feeder placement based upon that--all great venues for problem solving and dynamic thinking.
Then, the fun begins . . . watching and identifying birds. I started off by getting the know the boldest and most frequent visitors to our feeders. Between bird books and online guides, you have a wealth of information available. The first thing most people notice about birds is their appearance. Talking about how a bird looks is a great opportunity for making declarative comments and learning new vocabulary words. The other day, I identified a tufted titmouse for the first time. It came and went so fast I had no time to share it with Pamela, but I did take a blurry picture! That way we can slow down the action, zoom in on any details after we transfer it to the computer, and take our time in making comments, "the chest is creamy and fluffy," "the bird has a blue crown of feathers that look like a Mohawk," "its black eyes look like buttons," and "I see a little bit of rust colored feathers at the left and right edges of its chest." You can classify many birds based on appearance only! Some birds are tricky to identify (an example from earlier in the week was distinguishing between the Carolina wren which has a solid chest and the brown thrasher which has a speckled chest) and may require much more problem solving over several viewings to figure out.
Become a Dynamic Thinker
Bird watching requires dynamic thinking because many elements can help you identify birds. You can guide your child in exploring a host of characteristics of birds in your backyard:
Behavior - When birds are hard to distinguish (especially little brown blobs), what they do reveals much. For example, suppose you are trying to sort out a female house finch from a song sparrow. Song sparrows forage on the ground, while house finches forage in trees, on the ground, and feeders.
Size - By comparing sizes of birds feeding at the same type, you can estimate the size of the bird you are trying to identify.
Location - Some birds live in your area year round, while others migrate in your area during a certain seasons. You may only see other birds while they migrate. Not only that, some birds are not native to your area! Researching online guides tells me that house finches live here all year long, but purple finches are here only for the winter. I can rule out the Cassin's finch, gray-crowned rosy finch and black-rosy finch because they do not live in the Carolinas.
Food - While a way to reach a bird's heart is through its stomach, each bird species is very particular about seeds. If you see a little brown blob feeding on thistle seed (nyler seeds), your friend is most likely a female finch, not a sparrow, which prefers sunflower, corn, and millet seeds.
Movement - I knew where to point my camera because I spotted quick, flighty flitting in the trees. Birds tend to move in a snappy way different from the gentle sway of the wind blowing leaves in the trees. Another fun activity is to load pictures on the computer, zoom in carefully, and find birds hiding in the branches and leaves. Here are two shots I found of an American goldfinch wearing its winter colors.
Great Backyard Bird Count
Last year, Pamela made some entries in her nature notebook. This year, I would like her to learn to identify and count the birds with me. Here are my plans for scaffolding Pamela in making more careful observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count this year:
Photos of the Usual Suspects - I have a very good idea of what birds to expect this year, so I plan to make up and print some pages with pictures of all potential candidates and their names.
Checklist - I will tailor the checklist in Excel of the birds we expect with all the information GBBC requires.
Video - I plan to film the area where I usually watch birds and do my count from the kitchen window on my own. That way I can be very accurate and know how to guide Pamela when watching the video. Then, I will put the handicam disk in my computer where we can zoom in for identification and pause for counting. If we capture something cool on video, we can submit it to GBBC and blog it, of course!
Clock - I hope to teach Pamela to use clock directions to point out a bird in a tree. Imagine the tree's crown as the face of a clock: twelve o'clock would be the tip-most top of the tree, while six o'clock would be the lowest point in the crown. That means nine o'clock is the leftmost edge and three o'clock the right most.
Input - Pamela is very adept at the computer. She can help me input the data and make sure we didn't make any mistakes before we send it.
Other Worthy Projects for Higher Level Thinking
Celebrate Urban Birds