Ever since she was old enough to chase them, Kat has loved birds. Her fondness for them began when she was a toddler, running on unsteady legs toward a flock of pigeons in a grassy courtyard. She would break into a fit of giggles as they took off in startled flight all around her. We spent a lot of time outside, looking for birds nests and egg shells. When we caught sight of the birds rummaging around in the courtyard, we were charmed as they looked for food and territory within the hierarchy of their little bird societies.
Three years ago, we settled down and bought a home in an urban farm community. As we explored our new surroundings we were delighted to find so many different kinds of wildlife around us. When we went to investigate the vacant lots in our area, we were excited to find that they weren’t vacant at all! Killdeer had set up their nesting grounds in these relatively undisturbed areas. When we stumbled upon a nest on the ground, we knew that we would have a wonderful opportunity to observe these birds through their nesting season.
Kat and I went to “The Killdeer Lot” every day for about a month. We saw the male and female change shifts so the other could eat and stretch its wings for a bit. We watched as they gave alarm calls and faked an injury in an attempt to lure predators (us) away from their precious eggs. Killdeer have an interesting “broken wing act”, where they give a shrill cry that sounds as if the bird is injured. While crying out, they look back at the predator, ruffling their rust colored tail feathers as if their wings were injured. They hobble and cry in an attempt to lure the predators away. When the predators are far enough away from the nest, the Killdeer will fly away to safety. We were quickly introduced to this act when we first stumbled upon the nest. Since then, we make sure to observe at a far enough distance so that we don’t disturb or otherwise stress the parents.
Our daily observations of the Killdeer have brought us a lot of joy as we admire our feathered friends in their natural environment. Not only have we been able to observe the Killdeer and learn quite a bit about them, we’ve also been able to see their babies the day that they hatched! Killdeer babies are precocial birds, which means that when their babies hatch, they are feathered, they can see, and they can even run around and learn to hunt the day they are born!
Our observations of the Killdeer sparked an even greater interest in the birds of our area. In the years since we found our beloved Killdeer, we have done a lot of really cool projects to further our understanding and appreciation of our fine feather friends. Every year, we participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, where we tally the numbers of various species of birds we see in our neighborhood and add our numbers to the data of ornithologists nationwide. We also contribute our birds to a year long bird counting project through ebird.com. We’ve also participated in Project FeederWatch, which counts the numbers and species of birds that visit your bird feeders in the fall. There even more citizen scientist projects devoted to monitoring bird nests in your area, mapping backyard bird habitats, even as learning about how adding green areas to your city can help your local bird populations.
There are many other activities that you can do with your kids to instill an understanding and appreciation for the birds of your area. I’ve included some of our favorites below. After doing these projects and contributing to the citizen science projects linked above, we’ve learned quite a bit about our fine feathered friends!
One of the best things we’ve done with our birding activities was to make a bird journal. Get yourself a local bird guide and a set of binoculars, and you’ll be on your way to recording some great observations! You can make a bird journal easily by folding several pieces of construction paper in half and either stapling the sides closed or punching holes and tying them off with ribbon. Let you child decorate the front of the bird journal with bird stickers, bird drawings, or photographs of birds!
On the inside of the journal, I like to dedicate two pages for each bird. On one page, we would record our data. We designated spaces for the species name, habitat, nesting habits, diet, and known predators. We would often find this information in our bird books, but sometimes we would be able to reach conclusions based on our own observations! We would look at where birds were nesting and talk about how the location and type of nest can help with the success of reproduction. We would watch the birds as they pecked around for insects or looked for seeds on the ground and talk about how their beaks were adapted for their food. Sometimes we would even see territory battles, or even predatory chases!
On the opposite page, Kat would cut and paste pictures of each bird at various stages in its life. We would look online for images of the species in its nest to get an idea of what the eggs looked like. Then I would have her pick out a picture of the bird as a fledgling. This was the most fun, as fledgling birds tend to look rather frumpy with their downy feathers sticking out everywhere! Baby birds are adorable! Finally, she would pick out a picture of the bird as an adult. Then we would print, cut, and paste the pictures on to her bird journal in chronological order.
BEAKS AND FEET
In our studies about birds, I found this fantastic beak and feet worksheet from Biology Corner. It gave us a very detailed look at how the legs and feet of different species of birds are suited to their environment. It also prompted us to discuss the evolution of bird beaks and the variety of shapes, sizes, and strengths in order to adapt to the food sources that were available to them. As Kat and I thought about the beaks and feet of birds and how they assisted them in their environments, we kept thinking back to the birds of our area and comparing what we learned, to the observations we had made in our neighborhood.
Another fun activity involved printing pictures of these birds as well as some pictures of various food sources. Once we had printed and cut them out, we would mix them all up and try to match the bird to its appropriate food source!
Once we were finished with this project, I thought it would be fun to make our own Frankenbird! We could choose a leg style and beak style of any bird, and decorate it as we saw fit. We had to make up a habitat for it to live in as well as consider what type of food it would eat. Then we would pass our bird to each other and see if the other person could guess where it lived and what it ate.
Making our own Frankenbirds was easy, fun, and the results were adorable! While we were comparing what we were learning about beaks with our observations in our neighborhood, I thought it would be a good idea to actually see how birds use their beaks to eat their food. So, we set up a bird table with different types of beaks to see if we could match the food to the bird that eats it!
EAT LIKE A BIRD
Tweezers (Mourning Dove)
Slotted Spoon (Duck)
Steak Knife (Heron)
Rubber Bands (worms)
Lunch Meat (Fish)
Seeds, Beans, Pretzels (Seeds)
Rice, Noodles, Oats in Water (Water Insects, Algae)
Shallow bowls and cups
Index Cards (one for each bird and one extra for the woodpecker box)
Pictures of various birds (we used a Woodpecker, Hummingbird, Cardinal, Mourning Dove, Mallard Duck and Great Blue Heron)
Make a small box out of your index card. Leave one side open so that you can cover your pieces of cheese. This will serve as a woodpecker box. The pieces of cheese will represent small insects that can be found within the bark of a tree.
Set up your plates and bowls. Place the various food sources on each plate. Line up the “beaks” next to the food.
Make labels for your birds. Place the pictures of the birds in front of your child and have them match the label to the bird.
Take a good look at the beaks of the birds. Using what you know about beak shapes, sizes, and strengths, see if your child can figure out what type of food each bird eats.
Take a look at the different “beaks” that are on the table. Which beaks would be the best for each type of food?
Have your child pick up a beak. Match the beak to the appropriate bird and use the beak on the food that it will eat. What type of food would the pliers work well for? What bird looks like it has a similar type of beak? What about the skewer? Which type of food would this beak be good for?
Kat had so much fun with this project that she didn’t want to stop doing it! We took turns using the beaks to get the appropriate food, then we used the wrong beaks for different types of food to see what the differences would be. This project gave us such a great demonstration of beak capability that it became very easy for us as we were out and about to guess what a bird’s diet was based on the structure of its beak.
Watching and learning about the birds in your neighborhood can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Setting up backyard bird feeders can allow you a bird’s eye view of the crazy antics that can take place between different species, as well as the fierce competitions that can occur during mating season! Males will often strut their stuff on their turf, ruffling feathers, chasing other males, and calling to females. Females in turn, will often fly up and scrutinize the males very carefully, being especially considerate when choosing their mate. There will be food fights and territory disputes, and sometimes everyone will get along quite nicely. Whatever the social situation, the birds are always very entertaining and fun to watch!
One of the most wonderful things for us however, has been the ability to share what we’ve learned, as well as the bird habitats themselves with our friends and family. As Kat has deemed herself to be a “Protector Of Nature”, she has helped to inspire the kids of the neighborhood to be respectful and cautious of ground dwelling birds and their nests. She has made the kids swear protective oaths before showing the nests to them, and they now come over to our house whenever they find a new one! For her friends who are already great nature protectors, they bring a sense of excitement and respectfully quiet wonder when they get to see the Killdeer nesting grounds.
As for us, we now have a deepened admiration for birds and how they live, eat, reproduce, and thrive. We’ve learned about predation, the thievery of cowbirds and cuckoos, the habitat loss that urban development can bring about, as well as the restoration and conservation efforts that can help threatened species thrive. We’ve learned about our local Rio Salado Restoration Habitat, and in doing so, have found a new favorite park to frequent! Yes, we’ve learned a lot about birds, but we still have yet to conquer what makes them so unique…
The mastery of flight however, will have to wait for another time!