Birding’s For the Kids

Summer's a great time to get your children interested in birding. Why not give it a try?

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Summer vacation is right around the corner. Sure, the first few weeks your little ones will keep themselves occupied, blissfully excited at the thought of no school for two whole months. But as quickly as an ice cream cone turns from a delicious treat to sidewalk coolant, your children will get bored.

Why not introduce your tots to birding? Don’t let its reputation as a hobby for gray-haired retirees fool you. I swear, it’s fun for any age group. (Check out this piece I wrote about being a twentysomething birder and how much company I have.)

Birding doesn’t have to be a life-altering activity (although, for some of us—I won’t mention any names—it has been). But there are definite benefits to making it a summertime staple:

  1. 1. It forces your children outdoors for extended periods of time. Don’t forget the sunscreen!
  2. 2. It helps them appreciate nature. If not, see number 1. At least they’re outside.
  3. 3. It doesn’t cost much, if any, money. Of course, the dollars can add up—think professional-caliber binoculars, books, trips to birding destinations—if this hobby turns into obsession. But that’s a long way off for a newbie birder, particularly a child.
  4. 4. No matter where you are, birds are nearby.
  5. 5. Even if your child doesn’t know the difference between a cardinal and a robin, it's easy enough to start simple with the identification process. Focus on obvious details, like feather color or body size.

So how should they get started? Deloras Freeman, a visitor services specialist with the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Chesapeake, VA, suggests they write down all the birds they know already, then commit to learning a few new ones each week. She says it's important to track birds seen and heard.

Haley Main and Kim Keirnan, educators with Audubon New York's For the Birds! program, which teaches elementary-age students about the environment, nature and birds, suggest doing some simple projects, like creating homemade feeders or toilet paper roll binoculars. Then, they say, check out which birds live in your community. More science-minded youngsters should report their findings on e-bird, a National Audubon Society/Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science project.

If your children need a little more structure, you have a few options. Cornell offers a free starter kit, which fellow blogger Julie Leibach wrote about a few months back. There are also myriad children's birding books. Who knows what your children could see in their very own backyard? That's the whole point...send 'em outside!