Saturday morning, I joined about 30 eager youth and adults who gathered to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count. Three partner organizations–the Napa-Solano Audubon, the Napa County Library, and Connolly Ranch–have hosted this event locally for the last five years, but the nation-wide census is actually more than a century old!
As a novice birder, my interest in the Christmas Bird Count was to gather ideas for an after-school Birdwatching Club, which consists of more than a dozen students who want to create better bird habitat in the school garden. For the last six weeks, these scientifically-minded young birders have learned to observe nature more closely, look for evidence of bird visits, and share their enthusiasm with others.
The data collected by observers…allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.~History of the Christmas Bird Count
Being new to teaching birdwatching, I consulted many resources to guide my selection of experiences for the youth birders. I recommend Bird Watching for Kids by George H. Harrison as a complete, but not overwhelming how-to book for educators interested in studying birds with youth. Thanks to the abundance of materials available and special guests willing to visit, I had no problem planning our time together.
In the first week, we made journals to track our sightings and then practiced using binoculars. A great trick for teaching kids to use binoculars is to post large color images on stakes out in the areas where you’ll be observing. This way, students can build their ability to point, focus, and view something still before going into the field to look for moving birds. This strategy also helps students to quickly look for the critical bird identifying characteristics (such as size, color, location).
When the weather was bad, I introduced field guides and explicitly showed the kids how each field guide is organized differently. Some guides organize birds by color, while others categorize by habits or habitats. I recently acquired a fantastic field guide to Napa County, which made it very easy for me to identify the Black Phoebe I saw in the library parking lot on Saturday.
By far, the kids’ favorite activity was their bird feeder investigations. One group of students filled a recycled milk jug hanging feeder with expired garden seeds to attract birds like chickadees and nuthatches. A second group arranged sunflower seed heads on a table-top feeder for cardinal, jay, or grosbeak visitors. The final group filled a ground feeder with corn for juncos, sparrows or mourning doves. I hung a simple Nyjer feeder in an area where finches would find it. All students found evidence of bird visitors spotting cracked seed, lower volume of feed, or guano.
Unlike most of my former garden clubs, which were very maintenance or project focused, Birdwatching in the Garden fosters expertise across students who share a specialized interest. I was surprised that all 15 students came for the last club session of the calendar year on the Friday before winter break! We had a great time and all of the birders reported signing up for the next session.
Kid-Friendly Bird Books
- Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Birds by Monica Russo
- Counting Birds: The Idea that Helped Save Our Feathered Friends by Heidi E.Y. Stemple
- Look Up! Birdwatching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate