Birding can be hard enough when you’re an adult, with its unpredictability and bewildering variation. But it’s also awe inspiring and extremely accessible; one of my favorite things to do when I visit a new place is to go for a walk in the morning to see what species I encounter. So how do you make this wonderful pastime more engaging for children? I'm the Community Programs Manager at Seattle’s Seward Park Audubon Center, and I often bird with a young crowd in tow through the ancient woods of the Bailey Peninsula. Here are the strategies I use to keep little birders absorbed for hours (or minutes) on end.
How to Bird
Start off by reminding kids that birds are hard to spot, but easy to hear. Have them close their eyes and listen. Can they point to where the song is coming from? I like to teach common mnemonics like the American Robin’s cheery up, cheerio, which can be picked up on almost any bird walk in the United States.
Where to Go
Stick to areas near water if you can. You’re likely to spy herons, egrets, and swans, which are easier for kids to see. Plus . . . ducklings!
What to Look For
Striking out on live birds? Point out the signs they leave behind such as nests, cracked seeds, whitewash (poop), or owl pellets.
Which Optics to Use
Binoculars can be very hard for young children to learn how to use, so try using a monocular instead. Kids also have trouble looking through spotting scopes. Pop an adapter over the ocular lens of the scope and line it up with the camera on your smartphone or tablet for a more expansive view.
Who to Consult
Games are another element to add to the mix; any activity sounds more enticing when you tack that four-letter word on to it. Here are three ways Nicholas Lund (The Birdist) puts the "fun" in "birding fundamentals."
To fire up kids’ powers of observation, make a list of target birds before heading to the yard or park. Use general categories like ducks and hawks or even critters in groups of threes or fours. You could also make a rainbow by finding feathered subjects that cover ROYGBIV.
Teach proper bins usage by asking kids to read signs at varying distances. Start with the closest and move farther away until they’re okay holding the barrels steady and turning the focus wheel. Once those basics are down, play I Spy to have them re-find smaller objects.
Most children know what a pig and dog sound like—but what about a Red-eyed Vireo? Ask kids to imitate the bird sounds they hear, then use a field-guide app to pull up the IDs and play back clips. The key is to let them voice their own translation of the songs and calls
Freebie Alert! Don't have a field guide app? Download our handy Audubon Bird Guide App to start learning 821 North American species.