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Birds: Bringing nature closer

When children grow up, they will be responsible for protecting our natural world and the wildlife we value. While children are young, teachers have the awesome opportunity of instilling a lifelong interest in nature.
We can foster this interest by taking children on a field trip to an arboretum, aviary, botanical garden, farm, or zoo. But we might provide even richer educational experiences by inviting wild things to visit the children.
Our schoolyards may already have a number of wild visitors—insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, raccoons, and possum, perhaps. But of all wild creatures, birds may be the most accessible. Children can watch them through a classroom window.
Bird-watching indoors is simple and practical. Young children have not yet developed the stamina or patience for long birding walks. Binoculars are not necessary for preschoolers because they cannot yet adequately focus the lenses. And the goal is not sighting a rare bird but rather learning about birds in general.

Bird-watching can build skills
Bird-watching and related activities can help children develop a number of important skills:
Gross-motor skills. Children can build muscles in their arms and legs by taking short nature walks around the block or in a local park. They can imitate birds of prey in flight while running around the play yard with arms spread. They can pretend to be cardinals in undulating flight while swooping down a slide. Playing circle games like “Bluebird, Bluebird, In and Out My Window” also requires coordination of the large muscles.
Fine-motor control. Children can develop control in their finger muscles through art activities such as drawing or painting pictures of birds. Children can cut out silhouettes of birds to hang on the bulletin board or from a mobile. They can cut pictures of birds out of old magazines and paste them on stiff paper or cardboard to create collages. Small collages make great note cards to send to families.
Cognitive skills. Children can enhance thinking skills by learning to identify birds by shape and color. They can practice paying attention to detail by learning to identify differences in types of birds and even individual birds. I recognize a particular cardinal in my yard by his one white tail feather!
As children listen to you reading stories, they enhance their language skills. They can dictate their observations of real birds to you while you write down what they say. Or they can compose poems and stories about imaginary birds.
Graphing the number of birds sighted is a math activity. Finding out what different birds eat, and that birds take baths in dust as well as water, is science learning.
Social skills. Taking responsibility for feeding birds is a social skill, especially when the chore is shared with classmates. Children in small groups who observe and identify birds practice social skills like taking turns, negotiation, and oral communication.

Prepare for bird-watching
Bird-watchers observe different species in different parts of the country. The birds that feed outside my window in North Carolina include bluebirds, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, brown-headed cowbirds, goldfinches and house finches, juncos, nuthatches, chipping sparrows, white-throated sparrows, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers, and Carolina wrens. Won’t the children get excited when they can identify some of these visitors?
On the grass under my feeders, I see crows, speckled flickers, shiny black grackles, mockingbirds, mourning doves, blue jays, brown thrashers, starlings, and robins. These birds and others will peck at stray seeds or look for bugs on the ground. The most colorful visitors to my feeders include indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-bellied woodpeckers, and the dramatically black-and-white striped, downy woodpeckers.
True, I have an ideal backyard for bird-watching. It consists of a lawn of mowed weeds bordered with trees and shrubs and speckled with wild flowers in season. It’s located on the narrow, shallow Eno River. But wild birds began to flock to my yard only after I set up appropriate feeding stations.
You can invite local birds to visit by setting up feeders. To learn more, use resources like those listed at the end of this article.

Prepare feeders
Plan where you will place bird feeders. Hang feeders where you can see them from a classroom window or a glass door. Avoid well-traveled walkways or popular playgrounds. Birds can be messy, and we don’t want children playing in bird droppings. You can hang feeders outside windows using metal arms sold for that purpose.
Comfortable seating that faces the window will encourage children to relax indoors while they wait for their avian visitors. Be cautious about placement of shelves, bookcases, or other furniture. Children may try to climb to get a better look at the birds, and we want to keep children safe.
Discourage the children from tapping on the windows to get birds’ attention. The wild creatures can be frightened away from feeders by loud noises. That’s why bird-watching is a great way for children to practice patience and quiet. Children’s calm behavior can be richly rewarded by glimpses of colorful birds.

Choosing a feeder
Check out types of feeders at a garden supply store or discount store, or in a bird-watchers’ catalog. Or have children make their own feeders.
A tray feeder is a raised, flat surface that holds bits of fruit, nuts, or bread. It can be mounted on a post or deck railing. Unless it has a roof, however, it offers no protection from rain. And it can quickly become soiled from bird droppings.
A hopper is a “house” with bottom, roof and walls. It can be mounted on a post or hung from a tree branch. Dowels on either side allow birds to perch while feeding. While this type protects seed from weather, the seed can get moldy if not changed often.
A window feeder is usually made of clear plastic and attaches to a window by suction cups. It allows close-up views of birds. But because the birds stand on the food while feeding, the food can become soiled.
Tubular, clear-plastic feeders have several advantages: It’s easy to determine the level of seed before refilling. Several birds can feast at once on separate perches. A squirrel baffle can help prevent those hungry acrobats from gobbling up the seed. The feeders can be lowered on pulleys to be easily refilled.
You might see more birds at your feeders if you add a birdbath. Birds need water not only to drink but also to cool themselves in warm weather. You can use a concrete birdbath, but any shallow container or tray will do. Place it on a tree stump or table, and hold it in place by putting small rocks or sand in the bottom.
Keep bird feeders and birdbaths clean so you don’t contribute to the spread of parasites or mosquitoes. The children will probably remind you to feed the birds, and will even enjoy taking turns helping with these tasks.

What to feed birds
Birds will feed on a variety of foods. Black-oil sunflower seeds attract the greatest variety of birds. Dried corn kernels attract jays, pigeons, and doves; cracked corn is easier for smaller birds to eat. Safflower is a favorite of cardinals but more expensive. Thistle (also called “nyjer” or “niger”) will attract finches but is expensive and often sold in special feeders.
Ask your cook—and parents—to save pumpkin, squash, and melon seeds. Rinse them in water, let dry, and run through a food processor. Some birds like these seeds even more than sunflower seeds.
You can try mixed birdseed that you buy at the supermarket. Be aware that it often contains a low proportion of sunflower seeds and lots of filler. Birds may pick out the sunflower seeds and scatter the rest, which can be wasteful or attract other critters like raccoons.
You can also make your own: Mix 25 pounds of black-oil sunflower seed, 10 pounds of white proso millet, and 10 pounds of cracked corn. Store in a dry, airtight container.
Birds such as robins and mockingbirds will eat diced fresh fruit such as apple, melon, grapes, and orange. Birds also like raisins, but soften them first by soaking in water.
Woodpeckers, cardinals, and jays will feast on roasted peanuts, shelled or whole. Avoid peanuts with salt or sugar. If only raw peanuts are available, roast them at 350 degrees for 10 to 20 minutes. Try shelled walnuts and pecans and other nutmeats.
Bird feed does not have to cost a lot of money. Leftover bread and cheese crumbs, pastry and cake, fat, and even scraps like chicken bones can make a meal.
It can be educational to experiment with treats for the birds in your neighborhood but you’re sure to attract squirrels, too. Luckily, squirrels can be fun and educational for children to watch, as long as the birds aren’t kept away.

Expand to learning centers
Set up the science or discovery center with materials to help children learn about birds. contains color photographs and easy-to-read descriptions of 50 common birds that beginners are most likely to see. Dover Publications carries the Favorite Birds poster, the , and other resources.
An encyclopedia for children and magazines for bird-watchers are good publications for children’s research or just for casually thumbing through. (See resources on page 39.)
The learning center will also make a handy spot for the abandoned birds’ nests, feathers, and broken or unhatched eggs that children may find on nature walks. Add a magnifying glass, samples of birdseed, a diagram of bird parts, and silhouettes of common birds.
Note: If you decide to invest in binoculars for your classroom, look for a pair that is small, lightweight, rugged, and easy to focus, with a magnification power of about 4 X 30.

Bring nature closer with birds
Feeding stations can attract neighborhood birds to your play yard. Bird-watching promotes healthy development of both children and wildlife. You can support the natural world of the future by bringing nature closer to children.

Bird Watcher’s Digest
(800) 879-2473

Cornell Lab of Ornithology
(800) 843-2473

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
(800) 792-1112
Note: Scroll down the home page and click on “Texas Junior Naturalists” and then on “Birds.”

Children’s books
Herkert, Barbara. 2001. Nevada City, Calif.: Dawn Publications.
An introduction to backyard bird-watching, with color illustrations of a dozen common birds.

Kalman, Bobbie, ed. 1987. New York: Crabtree Publishing Co.
An introduction to feeding backyard birds, with descriptions and color paintings of 14 common birds. It gives ideas for simple feeders and basic facts about foods birds eat, nesting, feathers, and migration.

1998. New York: Scholastic, Inc.
A 150-page, beginners’ field guide that provides basic information about birds and how to identify them. It contains color photographs of 50 common birds, plus small photos of 125 other species, with pertinent facts about each.

Spaulding, Dean T. 1997. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co.
Ideas for making bird feeders from household materials.

Burgess, T. W. 2003. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc.
Brenner, B. 1972. New York: Alfred. A. Knopf.
Elliott, L. and M. Read. 1998. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Kress, S. W., ed. 1998. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Inc.
Stokes, D. and L. Stokes. 2003. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale.
Terres, J. K. 1994. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Weber, W. J. 1982. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

About the author
Theresa M. Sull, Ph.D., is an author, trainer, and early childhood educator. She has taught children, college students, and teachers and coordinated children’s programs. She is a frequent contributor to .