When I was little, I instantly found birds fascinating. One of my earliest memories, apart from dropping a plate of beans on my grandma’s carpet, was helping top up the bird feeders in the garden during a very snowy winter.
I couldn’t believe that such small creatures could empty those huge tubes every day.
Children are natural explorers, and birds are naturally awe-inspiring.
For me and many people like me, staying interested in birds and birdwatching has been an easy and intuitive thing to do, and our enjoyment has only deepened into respect and concern as we have come to understand the issues these fascinating creatures face, with or without global threats foisted upon them.
The younger generation that comes after all of us has unprecedented access to vast amounts of research and study that has already taken place in the last couple of centuries, and methods used to add to this are only going to get more and more advanced and precise.
Enjoyment aside, it is vital that the young people of the world continue to learn about birds and what they need to survive.
Birds aren’t just ornamental; they are intrinsic to the health of the planet. Douglas Adams was right: the “solution to each problem is detectable in the pattern and web of the whole, the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”.
Children are natural explorers, and birds are naturally awe-inspiring. Combining these two basic facts can open up worlds of intrigue and joy.
Once the interest is piqued, you usually need little more than the occasional reminder and some gentle encouragement to keep the fascination alive. True, as the years progress and the adult world comes a-knocking, it is hard for many to stay focused on these often-overlooked moments of release; the stress and anguish of growing up with all the challenges that hurtle our way can seem mountainous compared to a bit of birdwatching.
But when rendered in the correct way, helping a person develop their hobbies and interests to go alongside the strife of life will have only rewarding consequences, and in many cases will assist and develop resilience and perspective, two invaluable tools when fording the raging rivers of life.
It can also inspire the love of travel, and many other companion or final interests such as archaeology, geography, photography, and zoology, to name just a few.
The art of listening and learning
Explaining that birds are secretive creatures and you need to be very quiet and patient is a good place to start. If children are aware that birds are often quite hard to spot but quite easy to hear, it seems to add that layer of competition that evokes a form of self-control.
Familiar birds in your neighbourhood are more than likely going to be songbirds, so have a few of their “songs” handy, either to play back on an app on your phone, or remembered as a mnemonic, like the great tit’s “Teacher, teacher” or the yellowhammer’s “A little bit of bread and no cheese”, or the now adjusted white-throated sparrow’s song “Oh, my sweet Cana– Cana– Cana– Canada”.
Birdwatching outdoors is an opportunity for you all to share time in the natural world.
Ticking off achievements is also a good way to create interest: kids love “collecting”: who can name the first 5 birds correctly from their songs?
How many species can you see in one minute? Creating a rainbow chart of birds whose plumage matches the different colours (or close enough, unless you are lucky enough to live in the tropics) is a great educational way of – pardon the pun – killing two birds with one stone.
Birdwatching outdoors is an opportunity for you all to share time in the natural world, so be careful not to make it a challenge in itself as it could backfire. Always take along food and water and some spare clothes if the weather looks a bit changeable, and wear comfortable shoes.
Forcing anyone, let alone a child, to walk miles and there’ll be no going home until someone has spotted an eagle isn’t going to win you any best parent points, so if anyone is feeling tired, bored or hungry then take that break and discuss next steps.
Always remember that birds sometimes just don’t play the game, so if there aren’t any, try looking for signs of them, like feathers or cracked seed shells on the ground, or bird whitewash on leaves, maybe a nest or two in a tree up high.
Allowing children to choose where they explore instils leadership, too. Make sure you are familiar with the different areas beforehand, either nearby or if you are happy to go further afield, and remember different environments will yield different results: town centres hold bird secrets too, and riverside paths or coastal walks have their own sets of wildlife.
Studies have repeatedly shown that time outdoors with your children does wonders for mental and physical health and strengthens your bond, as you have shared an experience.
Birdwatching itself has been linked to improved memory and enabling cognitive development, and the possibilities of learning new things about the world and each other are endless.
Once you are home and full of stories and tales of how the day went, help to embed those events in your child’s mind with bedtime stories about birds, or provide educational yet fun and simple books to leaf through together – National Geographic produces a wonderful set of books for kids about birds stuffed full of beautiful photos and facts.
Writing it down in a journal, drawing in a sketchbook or creating a scrapbook using pictures, cut-out articles or items found, like feathers or shell and nest pieces is a perfect exercise in creativity. These treasured accounts enable children to develop a sense of order, help immeasurably with learning how to ID birds, and provide perspective when looking back to see how far they have come and developed in their chosen field of enjoyment.
Get the gear
Now, we would never advocate wasteful consumerism, but there is nothing wrong with buying the odd device every now and again, perhaps for birthdays, that makes birdwatching easier and more accessible.
A pair of binoculars makes seeing a bird instantly unique to yourself. A lot of children find using these a bit difficult, so always start with a lightweight pair and don’t be too disheartened if they aren’t comfortable using them at first.
Help hold them while they turn the focus wheel, or find something yourself and then hand the pair over, steadying the view by holding their elbows from behind.
A pair of binoculars makes seeing a bird instantly unique to yourself.
Remember, it doesn’t always have to be bringing outdoor things closer either, a microscope can be a wonderful introduction to the intricacies and wildly different colours of feathers, or egg shells, how sand grains and soil particles are structured, the complexity of veins in a leaf or moss from a nest.
Having feeders on your property can do no wrong – not only are you providing much needed energy for the birds, you are practically putting on a show for your child with a constant stream of actors.
I can still remember the cold sting of frozen wire mesh on my fingertips and the crunchy rattle of peanuts tumbling into the feeder, and not being able to reach quite far enough to the right branch to hang it from, my father gently taking the looped string from me.
Knowing that I was helping a birdsurvive the chilly night and to think that I had then seen that bird alive again the next day gave me such a sense of happy morality.
Children tend to instinctively know what is right and wrong, and nurturing that moral compass through the act of helping keep a species alive can not be topped, in my opinion.
It's important to keep in mind that an existing innate interest in birds can be easily nurtured, but if a child isn’t currently interested, that’s absolutely fine, and it may never happen; but remember it can still be sparked.
Something as simple as explaining to kids that dinosaurs, for example, were the forerunners to a lot of birds, and showing them some fossils of pterosaurs (“winged lizards”) is all you need to fire up that imagination and personal discovery of more facts.
Retaining membership of people aged 13 – 20 is one of the toughest challenges bird conservation organisations face, and the answers are still being sought as to how to (re-)engage this group of young adults.
But if you can ignite that spark in the first place, the world of birds stands a fighting chance at least.