Birds: Bringing nature closer
by Theresa M. Sull
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
Bird-watching can build skills
Bird-watching and related activities can help children develop
a number of important skills:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Expand to learning centers
Set up the science or discovery center with materials to help
children learn about birds. National Audubon
Society First Field Guide: 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 Beginning Birdwatcher’s Book, 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
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Note: Scroll down the home page and click on “Texas Junior Naturalists” and
then on “Birds.”
Herkert, Barbara. 2001. Birds
in Your Backyard. Nevada City,
Calif.: Dawn Publications.
An introduction to backyard bird-watching, with color illustrations of a dozen
Kalman, Bobbie, ed. 1987. Birds
at My Feeder. New York: Crabtree
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.
Audubon Society First Field Guide: Birds. 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. Feeding
Our Feathered Friends. Minneapolis,
Minn.: Lerner Publications Co.
Ideas for making bird feeders from household materials.
Burgess, T. W. 2003. The
Burgess Bird Book for Children. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover
Brenner, B. 1972. Is
It Bigger Than a Sparrow? A Book for Young Bird Watchers. New York: Alfred. A. Knopf.
Elliott, L. and M. Read. 1998. Common
Birds and Their Songs. New York: Houghton
Kress, S. W., ed. 1998. Bird
Gardens: Welcoming Wild Birds to Your Yard. Brooklyn,
N.Y.: Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Inc.
Stokes, D. and L. Stokes. 2003. Stokes
Backyard Bird Book: The Complete Guide to Attracting, Identifying, and Understanding
the Birds in Your Backyard. Emmaus,
Terres, J. K. 1994. Songbirds
in Your Garden. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin
Books of Chapel Hill.
Weber, W. J. 1982. Attracting
Birds and Other Wildlife to Your Yard. 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 Texas Child Care.