Teaching other kids about birding

Knox, Colin and I were invited to speak to a class of homeschool kids about birds and birdwatching today. I hope it was as much fun for them as it was for us! I wasn’t sure how it would go, as the boys were terribly nervous. We had spent a couple of days preparing, so they were ready to go, but they were daunted to see a class of older children looking at them.

Knox froze a bit at the beginning, but he relaxed after awhile. When it was all over he told me, “I wish we were still there teaching right now! That was a lot better than I expected it would be!” And Colin said he would love to do that again sometime.

Getting started

When my boys started birding they were 3 and 5 years old. We shared with the class how we began birdwatching at home, putting out different feeders with different kinds of seeds in view of the windows. The boys passed samples of various kinds of seed around the class, as well as three different kinds of feeders. They also displayed some bird houses they had built themselves with Grandpa, each designed to attract a particular species of bird.

We talked to the kids about field marks, taking along a diagram about the parts of a bird and many plush Audubon birds for the kids to look at. Each boy chose an Audubon bird and used it to explain the field markings on the head, body, wings and tail. We talked about different kinds of beaks, too. They encouraged the kids to also judge the bird’s size. Is it as small as a cell phone or is it the size of a can of coke? The boys think the Great Blue Heron’s body is about as big as a watermelon if you don’t count its head and legs!

Learning to use Binoculars

Next, we did an activity to teach about using binoculars. Most kids see a bird with their eyes and then look down at their binoculars. When they raise the binoculars and try to find the bird, they can’t locate it again.

We taught the kids to find the bird with their eyes and then raise the binocs to their face, without moving their gaze from the bird. The binocs should be trained on the bird. To facilitate this exercise, we gave each child two empty toilet paper rolls, and placed several keychain sized birds around the room for them to spot. We also told them to be sure and move the tubes toward their nose until they could only see one single round image, rather than two images.

They worked in pairs to spot a plush bird through the tubes, and then describe it to their partner (its field marks and its location in the room). Then their partner was told to use their instructions to also locate the bird in their homemade binocs. We passed out a few pairs of binocs for the kids to practice with, as well, but the room was not large. It was easier for them to do this exercise with the toilet paper tubes than with the actual binocs.

Learning to use a field guide

Some of the children were faster with this exercise than others. We gave the groups that finished a plush bird and a field guide, with some instructions about how to use the guide. We had a color coded guide, which was our boys’ first guide (Stokes Beginners Guide). We also had two Kaufmann guides, which are excellent for beginners (thanks to a pictorial index) and a Young Birders Guide (Peterson). The kids had the chance to look through their field guide and try to match the plush bird they were looking at. They really seemed to enjoy that activity.

Birding by Ear

Next we talked about birding by ear. The boys taught about mnemonic devices, and how they have used mnemonic devices in their birding. We taught the kids about the benefits of birding by ear, and shared with them about the boys’ science fair project last year (in which they learned that subjects who learned bird calls with the aid of a mnemonic device remembering them much better than those learning calls with no mnemonic device).

Then we did a little game, where I placed 10 audubon plush birds in a pillowcase and allowed the children to squeeze one bird without showing it to Knox and Colin. They were able to identify each bird by its call alone. When they guessed the bird, I took it out of the pillowcase to confirm. They got all 10 calls correct. Between them and their two teammates they’ve memorized over 100 calls collectively, so this exercise wasn’t too tough for them. But it was fun for the kids watching and seemed to make quite an impression! We also showed the Identiflyer to the class, which we use frequently in birding by ear.

Getting out in the field

We finished up by telling the kids some good places to look when birdwatching, and then gave each child a packet from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds! Project.

Our kids have really enjoyed this activity, which has children spend 10 minutes watching for birds in a location of their choice (it can be their own backyard). After 10 minutes the children complete a very brief questionnaire which allows the scientists at Cornell to determine which species are living in which areas at this time of year.

They use Google Earth to plot the location exactly, and the children are given two posters which show pictures and sillhouettes of each bird they are looking for. Cornell has highlighted the birds they want kids to search for, but all findings can be reported. There was also a sticker in the kit which says “Zero means a lot”, because even if nothing is found, scientists can learn from that, too.

All in all it was a great day. I’d like Knox to take the Communicators for Christ class and then try this again. The boys were excited to do another presentation, and I think if we did a few that it would be great for them. This is an excellent way for them to begin to hone their own communication skills, on a topic where they feel comfortable and which they are truly excited about.


  1. Where do you get your keychain size birds? What about your plush Audubon birds? Is there a cheap source for these or do you pay full price and just collect slowly?

    I’m such not the nature lover because I can never remember the stuff but FM#1 is and I might get him going in this. He would do a good job at leading the others.

  2. Sounds like you did have a great day. I loved reading about how those ideas worked out. I’ll be sure to tell the boys I’m proud of them!