By Laura Carberry, Audubon Naturalist and Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge Manager
A child’s sense of wonder is endless. Has your child or grandchild impressed you with the name of every dinosaur discovered? Do they know every African animal that roams the Safari? What about the wildlife in your own backyard? So many children learn to identify creatures from far away places, but don’t know the animals that thrive here in New England.
There is no easier way to connect kids with nature than birding. Pull out some binoculars and get the whole family interested in the world outside your window. Birds can be found year round, in any habitat, and the learning possibilities are virtually endless. All you need are a few simple tools.
The easiest way to see and attract birds is with a feeder. This can be store bought, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes, or consider creating one at home. Making a feeder can encourage your child’s sense of stewardship. Children take great pride in watching birds come to a feeder they have made. It can be as simple as spreading peanut butter on a pinecone and rolling it into seed or as complex as building one out of wood.
This brings us to our next tool - a field guide. Start out simple. Stoke’s Beginners Guide to Birds Eastern Region is a great place to begin. You don’t need a field guide that has all North American birds, it can be quite overwhelming. Observing birds and looking at a field guide will help your child learn the different shapes and sizes of birds, in what habitats the bird is likely to be found, and distinguishing features.
Another helpful tool for birding is a pair of binoculars. Your child’s age and ability will determine what binoculars to start with. If you have a toddler you may want to start with a set of children’s binoculars. These let your child get a sense of how to use binoculars with out the worry of damaging them. As children mature, they can graduate to a pair of compact binoculars that tend to be a bit lighter in weight then full size optics.
When teaching your child to use their binoculars, start at the feeder. Teach your child to look at the bird without the binoculars. Keep their eyes on the bird as they bring the binoculars up to eye view. Can they see the bird? Show them how to focus. Hours can be spent practicing this from a window or backyard deck. Once you move to the field, birding will become much harder and frustrating if they haven’t mastered this skill. If the kids are having trouble once you’ve headed out on the trails, try a pond where ducks or larger birds can be found. Larger, slower moving birds are good for practice. Just be patient, and enjoy watching the birds. As children get more skilled, try to use your field guide and identify what species you are observing.
Birding with your family can be a hobby that grows with your child. As they become more curious, take trips to different habitats to see a wide variety of birds. In turn, they are learning about nature and the wildlife found here in Rhode Island. Interested in heading out with an expert? Audubon hosts many walks throughout the year that can introduce the whole family to the world of birding. And the tools mentioned above to get kids started are available at the Audubon Nature Shop in Bristol. Grab those binoculars and go!