Animals / Birds / life science

Backyard Birds

As I write this, a hummingbird flits outside the window of my office. She pauses, seemingly peering in, checking me out. I am lucky to live in Arizona where about 13 species of hummingbirds can be spotted at various times throughout the year. If you live east of the Mississippi, you have one species or the ruby-throated hummingbird. One species but they are always a special treat to see.


On a tree branch close to my back door, I watched this past spring as two hummingbird eggs hatched in the smallest, cutest nest you could imagine. Within days, the heads of the young growing birds began peering over the top of the nest. Eventually, the nest was empty and I can only hope that those young hummingbirds are thriving.


To my surprise, a couple of days later I found a second nest in the same tree, attached to a branch only about a foot above the first nest, and it too contained two eggs each about the size of a pea. Another blessing of baby hummingbirds was on the way!


The topic of birds can be fascinating for children, but a little overwhelming. There are so many different types, they move quickly and are often hard to see. Their calls are interesting to listen to, but because the bird may not be visible, a birdsong may be seemingly disconnected from the animal. Unless you raise chickens or own a parrot or canary, it is also unlikely that your child will have an opportunity to hold a living bird, feel its warmth, touch its feathers or feel the grip of its claws on her fingers. Therefore, while birds are common, they can be difficult to study and learn about and some of the following activities are less hands-on than I would normally recommend. For more information on how to proceed, please read the “What is Guiding Curiosity” page.


To start your inquiry into birds with your child consider what is common or familiar. Think pigeons, crows, sparrows or robins, or other birds your child is likely to see regularly in your area.


A good field guide is recommended to help introduce birds to a young child. Yet, a complete field guide can be daunting in the sheer number of birds included. Consider buying an inexpensive copy of a field guide at a used bookstore and locating the most common birds in your area. Now cut out those pages and invite your child to paste them onto index cards or cardboard. You can place a photo of the bird on one side of the card and additional information on the other side. Create your own field guide by pasting information in a “book” of index cards already held together by wire rings.


I don’t normally suggest cutting up books, but having cards that were created by your child helps her feel some ownership of that information. A single card can be pulled out or multiple cards laid out on a table top, making this information more accessible than flipping through the full guide. Cards can be examined in the car or before bed, and they are easily sorted and transported. If you are still uncomfortable with cutting pages out of a book, there are many sites online that include photos of birds and printing those is an alternative option.


Focusing on local or familiar birds is a good start, but for fun, add a card with a flamingo, parrot, puffin, or penguin. These provide nice contrasts and can be more colorful.


You may not be a bird enthusiast or knowledgeable about birds but now is your chance to share time and a mutual interest with your child (remember you should pursue these topics because he demonstrated some interest). Share his enthusiasm and pay attention to what he finds most interesting. Find ways to make this playful rather than a forced march through the neighborhood looking for birds. Share information about the new birds you have discovered. Verbalize your own questions, or things you are wondering about.



Have you heard any of the following?  Have you had an opportunity to ask any of the following?


What do birds eat?

How do they fly?

Where do they go in winter?

How do they stay warm in winter or cool in summer?

Why do birds look different, or owls have different features than ostriches or chickens?

Does weather affect their behavior?




First and foremost, birders are terrific observers.  Start early to hone these skills.


Whether inside or outside, your child can observe birds. She can look and listen, describe what she sees or hears. Encourage descriptions of colors, body parts, movements in the air (diving, hovering), and on the ground (hopping, waddling, walking), as well as other behaviors such as eating or interactions with another bird.


Observations of birds may be enhanced with the use of binoculars allowing for a closer look.




Invite her to record her observations, making note of when a bird was observed, what color(s) it was, or what it was doing. Eventually, she can record the species name, but at first, just focus on identifiable characteristics. Remember that recording observations can be done through drawings.


Drawings may be a particularly effective way to capture the tone or rhythm of birdcalls – think dashes or dots or squiggly lines. When listening to birdcalls, ask how it makes your child feel when she hears that call, or what does she think the bird is feeling or doing. It can be difficult to listen to birdcalls, especially when there is another noise such as traffic or the wind. The calls are complex and may happen when you do not expect them and are not focused. No worries. Download an app for your phone. Some are free. This makes it possible to listen to birdcalls before bedtime or in the car. It also makes it possible to listen repeatedly so they are easier to draw or remember.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.birds.cornell.edu) has webcams or cameras focused on the nests of different kinds of birds. Log on this site and watch as this can be a terrific opportunity to observe birds, their offspring, and their behaviors up close. This is also a fun activity if the weather is an obstacle to a walk outside. If your child checks in regularly with a bird family, keep notes or a record of their behaviors.




Collect and observe feathers, parts of eggshells (from found nests or having fallen from a nest), bones (even from chickens consumed for dinner), nests, claws, or owl pellets (can be purchased on-line) with a magnifying glass. Find the language to describe these, or create art to represent these items (drawings, paintings, sculpture, prints). All of these collected items can also be used in artwork.


Observe flight characteristics, or watch birds that hover, dive through the air or into water, fly in formation, or glide. Again, encourage your child to capture these differences in his artwork.




Identifying different colors, sizes, and songs are the key to a correct identification. Compare and contrast to highlight similarities and differences.


For most of these suggestions, you will need a good set of pictures of birds, their eggs, nests, and habitats.


How are birds like us or different from us? (Hint: They are warm-blooded, have a heart, digestive system, and lungs. But they have feathers and beaks, lay eggs, and can fly).




Compare the size and color of eggs of different species. (A bird guide or cards created from those pages will be helpful).


Compare male and female birds of the same species.


Compare birds that are: a) nocturnal versus diurnal, b) waterfowl versus birds living in the forest, c) birds of prey with birds that only eat seeds, d) large and small birds, e) birds that build nests on tree branches or on the ground or who live in holes in trees, f) birds that migrate each year versus stay in the same area all year long.


Compare markings on heads, around eyes or beaks, on bellies and tails.


Compare shapes of beaks. There are charts that can be found on-line showing different beak shapes, but ask your child to draw his own chart (a field guide or cards can be used for clues) distinguishing between various shapes. Discuss the purpose of various beak shapes. Make sure to include a woodpecker, sandpipers, ducks, or a wren, or birds whose beaks show interesting variations.




If you have a collection of pictures of birds, invite your child to consider classifying them in terms of size, color, the shapes of their beaks, or on the basis of any of the comparisons made above.


Compare types of birdcalls. These can either be calls that you have recorded or there is an app for that! Listen and find language to describe various calls. Calls can be high/low, sweet/harsh, rhythmic or not. Sometimes a birdcall will sound like a word, or combination of words (bob-white, whip-or-will).



Counting is a basic measurement. Count the number of birds on the feeder at different times during the day. Make a list of all the different kinds you can see in your yard or out your window.


Measure the length, circumference, or weight of eggs. The eggs in your fridge are a good place to start. You can purchase duck or goose eggs at farmers markets for variation if you like. If you find the cracked eggs of wild bird chicks that have hatched and fallen to the ground or remain in an abandoned nest, these two can be measured and weighed.



Measure the width, circumference or weight of found nests.


Measure other items listed above, or bones, and owl pellets (found or purchased on-line. It sounds gross, but owl pellets come dried and are full of interesting stuff).


Measure bird prints in the dirt or sand at the beach. Count the number of toes. Measure the distance between footprints or count the number of bird footprints in an area. Count or measure bird prints in the snow.




Your field guide to birds may contain information about several different measurements for each species of birds. These measurements will vary based on the guide, but you can find interesting information and variations in wingspan, weight, expected life span, territory size, heart rate, and the number of eggs laid. There is nothing better than hands on measuring activities for inspiring curiosity, but this existing measurement information can be the basis for interesting discussions, and maybe some moments of awe.



A good experiment represents the best in problem-solving.


Mark a paper plate into four or five sections. In each section, place a different type of food, or apple pieces or other kinds of fruit, seeds, nuts, celery, bread or whatever else your child thinks a bird might eat (birds will eat crushed egg shells for the calcium). Place the plate outside for a couple of hours (assuming you have birds in your yard). Which type of food did the different kinds of birds prefer – or who likes what? You could try the same thing with ducks in a park, feeding them different types of bread or fruits and veggies to determine what their preferences are. (Note: feeding bread to birds is common, but apparently it is not a great food source for them as its calories are limited).


Purchase birdseed or suet cakes. Ask your child where she has seen birds eating in the yard, or where she thinks the birds would like to eat. Have her place the seed or suet in that spot and wait to see if the birds find it. Next time try a different spot. Keep track of how long it takes the birds to eat the seed or the suet cake. In which spot did the food disappear most quickly?




Take pipe cleaners and make bird feet. Ask your child to make several different kinds with variations in the size of the “toes,” or the widths between them. Many birds have a toe that sticks out the back of the foot. Which feet work best to stand on a flat surface? Which work best to clutch a tree branch or prey? Which foot type can pick up a grape? If you have trouble finding pictures of bird feet, rake a non-grassy area in your yard clear of leaves or other debris. Place seed or cut up fruit on the ground. Return at a later time and there should be plenty of bird tracks in the dirt. Sketch these or use the pipe cleaners to copy the shape of those feet.


Try building a nest with pieces of grass, twigs, leaves, string, mud or other found objects.


If it is spring, help birds to build their nests. Find a mesh bag, such as those that onions or oranges come in from the grocery store. Fill it with nest building materials for outside such as grasses. Also, consider some materials from inside such as hair extracted from hairbrushes, or strips of rags or newspaper. (Sometimes dryer lint is recommended, although it falls apart easily and may contain the chemicals from the detergent you used). Hang the bag from a tree. What types of materials do the birds like best? Can you find a nest near your home that was built with some of your materials?


Drip some water, not too much, onto a feather. What happens?


Are all eggs the same? Some eggs are round like a ping pong ball. How does a ping pong ball roll compared to a chicken egg? What would the advantage or disadvantage be if the egg is a different shape? (Hint: An egg that is oblong like a chicken’s egg will roll in a circle and it is more likely to stay in the nest).


Why are some eggs white and others speckled or colored? Take a white hardboiled egg outside. Where can you hide it so it can not be seen by predators? If you had a speckled egg (decorate a white hard boiled egg or use a picture of a speckled egg), where could you hide it?



How have feathers been used in clothing or in household items (think feather comforters for beds or fancy hats)?


Build a bird feeder or purchase one and place it in the yard where it can be easily observed ( the Cornell website has instructions for where to place a bird feeder so that the birds are not put at risk for crashing into windows). An easy-to-build birdfeeder starts with a pinecone. Tuck some peanut butter under the scales then roll the pinecone in birdseed. With string inserted through the top, the pinecone can be hung outside for the birds (and maybe a squirrel or two).




Develop a bird bingo game. Draw or use photos found online to create bingo sheets. Place the drawings or photos on a matrix of 4 – 8 squares (fewer squares are better for younger children). Keep a list of the names of the birds. Find some other players. Have a parent or older sibling call out the names of the birds. If that bird is on your sheet, you get to place a Cheerio, penny, or some other object on the corresponding image. The first player to have a full sheet wins.


There are many wonderful illustrated books about birds or with birds as the main characters. Head to the library and bring home loads of books to enjoy!


Encourage your child to act like a bird, or walk like a penguin or a stork, fly like a hawk, or turn her head like an owl. When describing a bird’s behavior, sometimes the words are not available, but imitation will help to clarify.



Use the correct terms when discussing birds. The names of the birds are important, as are terms such as migration, perch, ornithology, molting, hatchling (newly hatched), nestling (several days old), fledgling (flight feathers have developed). Chick is the most common term for a baby bird, but some species have specific and interesting terms:

swan and cygnet,

duck and duckling,

eagle and eaglet

goose and gosling,

owl and owlet,

falcon and eyasses.


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