Have you ever spent any time bird watching with your kids? I’ve been taking my kids on hikes along nature trails since they’ve been toddlers and over the years our treks have evolved into bird watching expeditions. Bird watching is an entertaining and educational way for families to spend quality time together appreciating nature. It is a hobby that you can engage in anytime of the year anywhere in the world providing an opportunity to have fun outdoors while getting some exercise.
Bird watching has been increasing in popularity over the last few years. According to Bill Stewart, Director of Conservation & Community for the American Birding Association, “Bird watching has become immensely popular across North America.” The American Birding Association is a non-profit organization that has been supporting recreational birding (the hobby of bird watching) through a variety of programs, service and special events since 1969. Stewart noted a growing number of Young Birder programs involving school aged children around the United States and Canada.
“Kids are easily captivated by birds,” Stewart told me. “As long as parents don’t turn the experience into a home work type assignment, and rather make it more like an adventure, most kids will find these wildlife encounters exciting.” He mentioned that birding is an attractive activity for many families because it can range from simply taking a walk through a local neighborhood park to going on a point of destination vacation where you are exploring a different area of your state, country or the world.
My kids have been amazed by the incredible diversity of birds and now wherever we go they are always on the look out for a new variety they might not have seen before. This interest actually has them wanting to go out and explore off the beaten path locations with dad when we go on vacations. Incorporating bird watching into a vacation can also help a family’s travel budget because it allows you to enjoy your surroundings without spending a lot of money. Many of the places you can visit for bird watching are free to enter or have reasonable admission fees. Spending money on equipment or gear really isn’t a necessity either unless you want to splurge on top notch binoculars.
Plus while on a birding trek you can also take in splendid scenery and possibly encounter other types of wild life as well. We’ve seen everything from alligators to water falls during our bird watching excursions. Some of my kids favorite sightings have been an Osprey at the Great Smoky Mountains, Pelicans along the gulf coast of Florida, Sandhill Cranes during a western Michigan camping trip and a Peregrine Falcon in our own backyard. We’ve yet to see one bird in the wild my kids really want to encounter though … a bald eagle. The chance to see one flying majestically across the sky continues to spark a desire with my kids to go on these birding expeditions that I enjoy so much for providing some time where they’re having a fun time with me as their dad. Every parent knows that as our children grow up that kind of special time becomes harder and harder to have.
“People don’t need to know anything about this activity to do it,” says Dorothy F. McLeer, Program Coordinator for the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Environmental Interpretive Center. “In fact, learning about birds together as a family is a bonding experience and creates long-lasting memories. Let your children lead the activity! Forcing them to learn things is a sure way to drive them away from wanting to participate.”
McLeer and Stewart both pointed out that a great aspect of birding is it can be done every season of the year and with migratory patterns there are different species of birds always coming and going to catch a glimpse of. Noting that warm weather months aren’t the only ideal time for birding, Stewart pointed out that while most people are only familiar with the well-known Mallard there are 20 types of ducks and fall/winter months are the best time to see them flocking around lakes and water reservoirs. “Ducks are a type of bird that will let you get really close to them and some of them can be very beautiful,” he said. “I always encourage people to keep an eye out for different varieties of ducks.”
“Some birds are only with us in the spring and summer months to raise their young before migrating home for the winter,” McLeer said. “Look up what parts of the world these birds travel to and from plus what attracts them to these places. This opens up opportunities for kids to study geography and ecosystems. It also provides a good understanding of where and when to go look for different species.”
McLeer and Stewart also agreed that visiting United States’ Wildlife Refuges are some of the best places for bird watching. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service which manages these refuges estimates that more than 46 million Americans consider themselves “bird watchers” and encourages people to get outdoors and participate in this activity according to its website. The federal agency which is tasked with the conservation and management of the Nation’s fish and wildlife resources has an extensive amount of information on this topic online to educate and promote enthusiasm about bird watching.
Here are some tips courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for students and first- time bird watchers:
• Bring binoculars! They are a great tool for observing wildlife from a proper distance without scaring them away. Get familiar with using binoculars before taking them out on an excursion.
• Birding manners are important. You will see many more birds and enjoy the experience much more if you show respect for the creatures and their habitat.
• Join a Bird Watching Club specifically for younger birders in your area to develop the activity as a hobby. Birding can be a fun group activity!
• Be comfortable and safe! Make sure you are dressed for the weather. Take water with you. Wear sun screen, a hat and insect repellant. Children should go with an adult and make sure parents always know where they are going and when to expect their return if it isn’t a family outing kids are going on. And most importantly – have fun!
Stewart added to these tips by saying “Birds see and hear you way before you ever see them.” He noted “The natural tendency is to walk towards a bird when you see one; but you should do the opposite. Sounds don’t bother birds it is your movement that will scare them away. Stay in place when you glimpse a bird and enjoy the view.”
McLeer also recommended trying to think like a bird in what they are looking for in a habitat to survive to find the best spots to watch them. “Food, water, and shelter are the big attractions to look for,” she said. “Your family will be learning about not only birds, but the types of habitats they prefer.”
To help know what birds to look for where you are at or determine what you’ve seen while out birding, picking up a field guide book or app can be a great resource. McLeer recommends guides by Roger Tory Peterson or David Allen Sibley. Stewart specifically suggested The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America by Bill Thompson III.
You never know what you’ll encounter during a bird watching trip. One of the most memorable birding trips my family has had was at a Great Blue Heron rookery, which are protected nesting grounds for these giant birds. During our visit we encountered deer, foxes, lots of chipmunks, a giant snapping turtle and some noisy woodpeckers; but none of the birds we were looking for. Heading home in the car we didn’t get far as the road was blocked by a herd of wild turkeys. My kids were in awe seeing what they had previously only considered as Thanksgiving dinner walk right up to our car. The sense of wonder you could see on my children’s faces as they took in all the wildlife we encountered during this trip is an excellent example of how any bird watching trek can become an exciting, fun adventure.