"Aunt Terrie, do you think we could go birding today?" Kyle asked as he was spooning down his breakfast cereal. Doing something out-of-doors sounded like a fine idea, especially since our household, normally two, had recently swollen to ten.
Kyle and his family, six total, had just moved to Portland from Alaska. They were living with my husband and I while looking for a house of their own. Grandmother and Granddaddy were also here for a visit from West Virginia.
His interest in birding, a passionate hobby of Al's and mine, pleased me. This lovely August day, we decided, would be perfect for the kids's first lesson in bird watching.
After querying the family, I began to round up those who were interested. My sister-in-law Debbie figured one ought to be appropriately dressed for birding. Out came her new peacock-colored sequined and beaded vest from India. Al grabbed the binoculars and the spotting scope. I found the bird identification books and helped Kyle find paper and a pencil. Forty-five minutes later, our birding party consisted of four adults: Granddaddy, Al, Debbie, and myself; and three children: Alan , Kyle, Kaila; a good mix.
Al began the lesson in bird watching at our backyard bird feeders. Scrub Jays, House Finches, House Sparrows and Chickadees all came round while Al helped Kyle write the name and descriptions in his notebook. After exhausting the backyard varieties, we split into two cars and headed for Crystal Springs Rhododendron Gardens, about 10 minutes from our house in Portland, Oregon.
Al stopped along the way for bags of cracked corn to feed the ducks. As we gathered together again in the parking lot, we explained why the volunteer staff at the Gardens encourage visitors to feed the birds only cracked corn or small amounts of grain. Stale bread crumbs, a popular alternative, attracts gulls and rats to the ponds and promotes algae growth, making the water less healthy for the ducks and geese.
A small entrance fee opened the gates, and we headed down the path. New plantings had appeared since the our last visit A nice clump of heather and other shrubs would be well established by springtime when the songbirds arrived. The new habitat was especially designed for their needs.
"I see some ducks!" Kaila, who was only five, shouted as she took off down the path, a bag of corn in one hand and a stick with a string on it, her fishing pole, in the other. The commotion startled some ducks sleeping in the shrubbery; they waddled down to the pond, quacking their disapproval of noisy children. It was the perfect opportunity to caution the kids about running and shouting, one thing you ought not to do while bird watching.
The ducks were already on the water when we arrived at the pond. Tossing cracked corn let them know we meant no harm, and they swam a little closer.
"Those are mallards," Al pointed to be sure the kids watched the right ones. "See their green heads? See how they sparkle in the sun? Those are the males. The brown ones over there are females, the ones that don't have green heads."
Kyle, nine, studiously wrote "MALARD DUCK" on his bird list. I figured we could work on his spelling on another occasion. Kaila concentrated on making sure the small ducks in the back got their share of corn.
"What about those over there?" It was Alan who pointed this time. "The ones with just a little green?"
Al looked pleased at Alan's observation, explaining those were young male mallards, probably born earlier this past spring. Alan, eleven, picked things up a bit quicker than his younger brother and sister.
"And what about those?" Alan asked again, this time pointing to a handsome duck with a white face mask and strikingly patterned body.
"That's a male wood duck. Pretty, aren't they? And that smaller duck next to him with the white diamond shape around her eyes is the female" Al didn't mind the questions. It meant the kids were enjoying themselves.
"WOOD DUCK" went onto Kyle's list.
We continued past the first pond to the main pond, where we found lots of other ducks. In a tree above the pond, Al spotted a Cooper's Hawk, and managed to get the scope on it long enough for everyone to get a look. "COOPER'S HACK" went on Kyle's list.
"Look over there," I pointed past the bridge and into the reeds. "That mother Coot has some babies with her."
Everyone admired the tiny ducklings with their downy feathers and watched as the mother duck fed them bits of grass.
"Look at the geese flying in." Sure enough, a small flock of Canada Geese landed near us, attracted by the corn. They were very bold. Kaila and Kyle discovered if they held very still, the geese would come right up and eat corn out of their hands.
"I touched one!" Kaila was so proud.
"Look up," Al said. "See those birds flying way up there? Those are Vaux's Swifts."
A cackling crow, which was flying above, the kids could identify by themselves. We stayed at the pond for a long time, identifying a Pied Billed Grebe, American Widgeons, and Ruddy Ducks in addition to the Coots, Mallards and Wood Ducks that we had seen earlier. Kyle's list was growing longer. Alan seemed fascinated by the variety of birds, quickly picking up the difference between a mature and immature bird, in addition to being able to identify the different types. Kaila continued to feed the little ducks at the back of the group which had gathered around our feet.
"What's that?" Alan pointed to an animal swimming through the main pond toward the shore. "A beaver?"
We looked closely. Nope, it couldn't be a beaver; it had a skinny tail.
"It must be a nutria," I said. "They've become a bit of a pest here. They compete with the birds for food." Sure enough, the nutria climbed onto the shore and began begging for corn. He was indeed about the size of a beaver, with sleek brown fur. He was kind of cute, for a pest.
We had begun to run out of corn, so we headed back up the path. There were some Bushtits flying around in the shrubbery, and Al pointed out how you can identify them by their small size and long tales. "BUSH TIT" went on Kyle's list.
After arriving back home, we totaled up 17 species-- 20 if you count the mammals as well (rabbit, nutria and squirrel). The kids were pleased.
"Can we do this again tomorrow, Aunt Terrie and Uncle Al?" Alan asked.
"Absolutely!" We didn't need much coaxing.
Keep trips with children short, especially the first couple of times out. Don't wear out their attention span.
If you're new to birding yourself, contact your local chapter of the National Audubon Society. They will often have trips specifically designed for families with children, and you can all learn together. Stores which specialize in wild bird seed and feeders will also often have guided bird watching trips at little or no cost.
Trips to the local duck pond are a good place to start children out on bird watching. The birds are often close, relatively tame, and colorful. But remember to take cracked corn or small amounts of grain, not stale bread. Bread encourages algae growth and bacteria in the water and can attract unwanted pests such as rats and gulls, who compete with the ducks for food.
Encourage your children to keep a list of what they see. Once back at home, look up the birds on their list in your bird identification books. Reading together is a good family activity, with everyone learning whether they migrate and, if so, what countries they visit when they aren't in your neighborhood. Find a map and trace the migration routes. Later in the year, talk about where the ducks on the list are. Are they nesting in the arctic? Wintering in South America?
Talk about habitat. What kinds of birds live in the water? What kinds live in trees? What kinds forage on the ground? Are their feet shaped differently? Their wings? Their beaks or bills? Talk about how the habitat in which a bird lives affects how it looks.
Always, most importantly, have fun together. Keep the lessons simple. Children don't need lectures about wildlife conservation every time they go on a field trip.
As they learn about the birds and animals around them, children will begin to care about the fate of all life forms. A natural desire to protect these beautiful creatures, by conserving their homes and habitat, will soon be part of their life.
About Terrie I. Murray.
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