Every spring, Cliff Swallows start construction. They patiently stack pellets of mud, like little bricks, that harden into nests. As their name hints, the birds frequently build along cliffs and canyons. But they also make homes amid human-made bridges and buildings.
How do swallows pick a place to raise their chicks? For any animal, there are key resources that they need to survive—such as drinking water, food, and a space safe from harsh weather and predators—that are part of an ideal habitat. As long as birds can access these resources reliably, they can make a home for themselves.
This activity helps kids learn about the interaction of bird and habitat through a technique called “patch birding.” In patch birding, people regularly return to the same place (their “patch”) to observe wildlife. Every time birders go to their patch, they get to know the local plants and animals better. And they start to notice not only which bird species live there, but also observe their behaviors as they hunt or forage, sing and display, and build nests.
Eva Matthews Lark, program manager at Hog Island Audubon Camp, uses patch birding to engage young birders of many different skill levels. (In fact, this activity is inspired by Hog Island’s patch birding projects.) “You’re seeing how things are changing, not just the bird life, but also the plants, the insects—it’s all connected,” Matthews Lark explains. She adds that patch birding can be addicting. “Having it be your patch mean you’re invested in going back, month after month, week after week.”
Pencil, colored pencil, erasers (or other art supplies for mapmaking)
Folder or binder for keeping your notes together
Notebook or several sheets of paper
Birding guide or app to help identify birds in your patch
Optional: camera, binoculars
1. Ask your child to pick a patch! There are a few important criteria for selecting a birding patch. The location should be safe and easy to visit at different times of day. The spot can be a nearby park, a yard or garden, or even a small green area near a waterway. Make sure that there is a water source (whether it’s a birdbath, manmade pond, lake, or shoreline).
2. After selecting a patch, make a map of the site together. Include notes like how big or small the area is and where the water sources can be found. Encourage your child to use different colors or symbols for parts of the habitat like trees, flowers, and human structures. You can ask your child questions to encourage them to include details, such as: Is the grass mowed in some sections and not others? Are there wild plants or tended gardens? Is there a bird feeder in this patch? Are there trails?
3. Now that you have a patch and a map, it’s time to start birding! For a first visit, consider going either early in the morning or towards the end of the day, as many birds are more active at dawn and dusk. Make a note of the time of day and the weather conditions. Then spend a few minutes looking for wildlife at the site. If this is your child’s first time watching nature, you may need to help them spot birds. Encourage them to sit quietly for two minutes, just listening and looking, and see how many birds you can find.
4. Whenever your child sees a bird, ask them to make a note and draw a quick picture (or even take one with a camera) to help identify that bird using a guide or app. Name the birds’ colors and size out loud and describe how it moves. It may take a little bit of time to identify the local birdlife, so find a comfy spot for you both, be patient, and take notes. It’s okay if you only identify one or two birds on your first visit.
5. After that first visit, ask your child to pick a different time of day for the next trip to the patch. Then repeat the process of looking, listening, and taking notes.
6. Try to visit the patch once a day, every day for a week, and see how many birds you and your child can identify. You can also make this process a game or competition: Who can spot the most birds in a visit? Who can spot the greatest variety of birds? Or set a challenge: How many visits does it take to spot and identify 10 different bird species?
7. Once your child is comfortable spotting birdlife at your patch, another challenge for patch birders is paying attention to bird behavior. In your child’s notes, when they spot a bird, ask them to write about what it’s doing. Is that robin collecting worms after a rainstorm? Are the sanderlings running along the sand? Is that a Mourning Dove cooing from a rooftop? As you and your child notice a bird’s activity, you can also start to see how the birds use different features of their habitat in varied ways.
After several patch visits, your child’s map, notes, and pictures are perfect starting points for a homemade field guide! Encourage your kid to create a booklet or foldable brochure that includes each bird species they’ve seen at the patch, a picture (original art or photography), and notes on the birds’ behavior and habitat use. Do you usually see a given bird in the trees? Catching insects? Diving in the water? Those notes can help young birders keep an eye on local wildlife and, if your child shares their guide, it can help others spot birdlife in the patch for the first time.