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Little girl using binoculars learning about birds

An Intro to Birding: How to Teach Kids About the Birds in Your Neighborhood

turn your walk around the block into a nature scavenger hunt

You might be surprised how many wild animals (besides your toddler) call your yard or neighborhood home—as I write, there are several hummingbirds taking turns at the feeder, a mockingbird serenading from our chimney, and a Lincoln’s sparrow splashing in the birdbath.

Even if you don’t know much about the birds in Dallas-Fort Worth, you can introduce your kids to birds and other wildlife.

“Parents don’t need to be experts,” says Katie Christman, an education specialist at Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center, where she leads hikes and teaches kids about the local flora and fauna. “Just get outside, go for a walk, explore everything you see around you.”

Here are a few tips to start birdwatching close to home:

Does my kid need binoculars?

You won’t forget your child’s bug-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment the first time they get a good look at a bird through binoculars. That said, young children often have trouble manipulating binoculars, Christman reveals, which can lead to frustration instead of joy. Consider purchasing a lightweight, kid-size pair (minimally effective) or just forgoing the glass until they get older.

And binoculars aren’t the only way for kids to have close encounters of the bird kind. “If you can, set up a simple feeder, and then the kids can see the birds coming back and forth in their backyard,” Christman suggests. “The kids can see everything right there, and they don’t need binoculars.”

She also recommends Audubon’s plush birds. “They look like the real bird, and when you squish them, they have the call recording in them,” she says. (I have the bluebird and can vouch for its squishability.) For littles, a plush can offer a personal, sensory experience that reinforces what the bird looks and sounds like.

Before you go: Rules for respecting nature

As you set out on your neighborhood excursion, teach your kiddo basic etiquette for encountering wildlife.

“Observe animals from a distance,” Christman says. Pretty much any bird will fly away if you run toward it, shout, or try to touch it. Teach your kids to be quiet (well, quieter) to see wildlife.

And if you meet a spider, a snake or another critter you’re not too fond of, model a cautious but courteous response.

“You don’t have to like what you’re seeing, but we still have to respect it,” Christman says.

Where to find birds in your neighborhood

Besides anything green (trees, lawns, flowerbeds), these spots are especially appealing to birds:

  • Perches with a view – some species, including mockingbirds, prefer to survey their kingdom and divebomb trespassers from a rooftop, a stop sign or the highest point of a tree. Lots of species sit on fences and telephone wires too.
  • Water, from your local duck pond to the sprinkler runoff
  • Shaded, sheltered areas where birds are protected from weather and predators
  • Habitat edges where one kind of habitat meets another—for example, where a hedgerow meets a lawn, or an open field meets a wooded area

Keep your ears open too—the rambling melody of a house finch or the persistent knocking of a woodpecker might lead you to the bird.

Even when you don’t see birds, help your child look for signs that they’re around—feathers, scat, a woodpecker’s excavation hole. “Sometimes [kids] get disappointed if they don’t see animals, but this is a great way to be like, ‘Well, we can see signs of animals,’” Christman says.

What to do when you see a bird

You’re taking a stroll, and you spy a bird perched on a nearby rooftop. Target acquired! …now what?

Maybe you know it’s a mockingbird; maybe you have absolutely no idea. It doesn’t matter, according to Christman—you can still help your kiddo observe the bird and describe what they see.

“Don’t focus on the ID; focus on the characteristics of the bird,” Christman advises. Let your child lead the discussion, but ask questions to direct their eyes and ears: “What color is it? What is it doing? Is it singing? What does the beak look like—is it small? Is it curved? What about the feet?”

Then follow up with questions about function: “What do those feet help the bird do? Why do you think it’s eating thatseed?” Again, you don’t have to be ready with the right answers—let your kiddo speculate, and then go home and do further research together. The goal is to kindle curiosity about nature, hone their observation skills and encourage mindfulness as they interact with the world around them.

Kids might also benefit from drawing or writing down what they see, just as many birdwatchers take notes and make sketches.

To help you identify a bird, download The Cornell Lab’s free Merlin app—it walks you step-by-step through the bird’s characteristics and suggests possible IDs based on your location.

Turn your neighborhood walk into a scavenger hunt

If you want to get your kids on board with something, gamify it. (In fact, birders love to gamify their hobby—did you see The Big Year?)

“I love to do seasonal scavenger hunt games,” Christman says. “It’s a great way to see how nature changes throughout the year.”

For example, in the spring, when birds are especially lively, Christman’s scavenger hunts will include things that birds eat—caterpillars, seeds, flowers (“Find five flowers blooming”). A nest would be a big-ticket item. You can also put bird songs and calls on the list.

Then when the season changes, so does the scavenger hunt. Christman explains that she tries to make connections from one season to the next. “If on the spring scavenger hunt I had a bud on a tree, [in the summer] I might say a leaf, or different types of leaves.”

Since summertime is typically on the quiet side, nature-wise, her summer items are often more sensory-oriented: “Find a leaf that is smooth, or one that is scratchy, or one that has smooth edges, one that has rough edges.” (Pro tip: Make sure you know what poison ivy looks like.)

More bird activities for kids

If you’re itching for more bird-related fun, Christman recommends these three websites, where you’ll find quizzes, puzzles, projects (like DIY bird feeders) and other educational resources for families:

And follow Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center on Instagram and Facebook for videos and interesting facts about the wildlife at the center.

Image courtesy of iStock.