Self-Isolation Is Turning Children Into Budding Birders

During the coronavirus crisis, families are discovering their avian neighbors and nurturing the next generation of nature lovers.

Before a tidal wave of COVID-19 cases crashed on Chicago, before schools closed and the Illinois governor issued a stay-at-home order, a pair of Cooper’s Hawks took up residence on my family’s block. Their laugh-like cak-cak-cak calls ricocheted around the alleys and sent pigeons flying. My husband, kids, and I saw them swoop from one leafless tree to another, sure, but we didn’t spend much time really noticing them.

That changed a few weeks ago when we began spending most of our time in our home to help flatten the curve. Life is slower at the moment. We don’t rush around to basketball or soccer or violin. There’s more time to watch what’s happening through the window or up in the trees. Now, when we do leave the house, it’s for a quick walk, scoot, or bike around the neighborhood.  

On our excursions, we listen to newly arrived robins and look for their red breasts. We practice our fee-bee calls. My husband and I take our 7-year-old daughter Hazel and 4-year-old son Cole to the tree where we most often see the Cooper’s Hawks and look for their white poop on the sidewalk. When we spot them, my daughter awkwardly walks her pink plastic Big Wheel down the sidewalk so we don’t scare the birds with the rumbling. My kids practice using binoculars as the birds add sticks to their nest. When a hawk calls, my kids respond.

Our story is just one of many I've recently heard from friends. One parent who began watching birds with her kids sent a link to common calls on a school moms’ Facebook chat. Another friend’s daughter asked to study birds. On social distancing walks through the woods, little ones carry a backpack full of magnifying glasses, compasses, and binoculars. As our world responds to the coronavirus pandemic, birding, it turns out, is the perfect kid-friendly quarantine activity.

“This is an opportunity for kids to break into birding,” says Adam Kessel, a program coordinator for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, a network of 70,000 acres of protected land in the Chicago region. He’s noticed people are becoming more interested in natural spaces, but since government officials are still advising people stay at home, he suggests looking for birds in a backyard, parkway, or courtyard. 

Seeking out birds helps my kids sharpen their observational powers, gets them away from screens, and lets them bathe in nature when most of the day is spent indoors. Our bird walks not only give us something to search for when we’re outside, they may be helping my kids learn.

“Oftentimes you’ll hear a bird before you see it and that gives you something to focus on,” says Patti Bailie, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine at Farmington. “With birds you’re not only developing observation skills, you’re also developing auditory skills.” And honing those can help with reading, she says.

Research also shows that playing outside fosters children’s creativity and ability to concentrate. One 2016 study suggested that time in nature promoted preschoolers’ creativity and problem-solving skills. Another found that time outside can “sharpen child senses, enrich vocabulary, increase spatial understandings, and permit more practice for large muscle skills.” 

And those are just a couple of many studies that support a growing movement to teach kids outside. The Natural Start Alliance, a group that promotes outdoor experiences in early education, says that nature preschools in the U.S. numbered more than 250 in 2017, up from less than 20 a decade earlier. More elementary schools are also incorporating programs where kids spend one day a week outside.   

For Kia Ferrer, mom to 7-year-old Diego and 4-year-old Marco, watching birds helps teach empathy. From their window on the second floor of a Chicago apartment building, they all watch the Chimney Swifts nearby. A friend, who happened to be an ornithologist, pointed them out during a visit. Wanting to know more about them, she and her sons looked up the birds’ behavior and found that the swifts use their own spit to make nests and glue them to walls, so they named a couple of the birds Nesty and Sticky. “We’re obsessed,” says Ferrer, a child and family psychotherapist.

She and her boys saw how the birds live together and care for each other. The birds, she says, are a good example of community. “I’m teaching them how they care for each other and how nests are made and how that’s protective, using that as a metaphor for life now. It’s pretty parallel,” she says.

Identifying birds has also offered Amanda O’Brien, a medical research consultant who is now also homeschooling her two children, the chance to teach how to observe and compare. When O’Brien asked her 7-year-old daughter what she wanted to research one day, Caitlyn said birds, so they came up with a lesson plan. Caitlyn got out a young birders' guide given to her by her granddad and listed attributes of a Pigeon Guillemot and a Band-tailed Pigeon. 

When they go outside they look for birds seen in their field guide and search for nests when they climb trees. (Unfortunately they can’t tell which species made which nests yet, Caitlyn and her brother Tait lament.)

These days, when my family goes out, my son reminds me not to forget our binoculars, something he didn’t used to do. My daughter even brings a notebook so she can make her own observations. We're also using our Audubon bird guide app more than ever. 

We’ll continue to watch migrants come through our patch of backyard as the weather warms. Building a birdfeeder is on the agenda for next week. We’ll also keep watching the Cooper’s Hawk pair nest. Observing that process (with a little more practice using binoculars) will show both the kids and us that even during a pandemic, new life will hatch. And we may even have time to see it.