When you think back on your childhood, what do you remember most about being outside? Perhaps a chorus of frogs resonates in your ears. Maybe the hours of fishing or splashing in the old watering hole are what you remember most. For me, it’s the sweet aroma of harvested alfalfa from the fields of my grandparents’ ranch near Buffalo, Wyoming.
No matter what the memory, many of us are fortunate enough to recall a time when being outside was part of being a kid. These days, it seems everyone is spending more time plugged in and tuned in and a lot less time outdoors. But nature is just as alluring now as it’s ever been.
As the education director for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio, I am privileged to share nature with thousands of people every year. And while every interaction is unique and rewarding, I’m most thrilled when I see a child’s face light up with natural curiosity. If you enjoy birds, I encourage you to reach out to the youth in your area. You don’t have to be a bird or kid expert to share birding with others. Enthusiasm is the key to opening the door for the naturalists of tomorrow.
Where to Start With Young Birders
Birds are the perfect hook for getting kids interested in nature, because you can find them everywhere. Just as you recruit young anglers with bluegill, you recruit birders with cardinals, chickadees and goldfinches. Backyard bird feeders are a wonderful place to start. I remember spending countless hours at my grandparents’ window watching the antics of black-billed magpies. Children are mesmerized by nature, so a window into that world is all you need to get them started on this lifelong hobby.
Neighborhood parks provide much more than a patch of green to walk in. They offer endless potential for observing birds, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, toads, sticks, rocks, leaves and more. Many parks also have wetland areas, and since water birds are often large and conspicuous, ponds are a good place to start with beginning birders.
Go beyond the ordinary when looking for bird-watching spots. City dumps, sewer lagoons and even cemeteries provide surprising opportunities to see lots of birds. Or head out biking, hiking or kayaking for a change of pace.
Birding as a Family
Birding isn’t a solitary hobby. When you see an unusual bird or get to observe its entertaining behavior, you want to tell someone. Kids are the same way.
Find a bird walk to attend. Many local bird clubs, nature centers, parks and wildlife refuges offer regular walks. Staff naturalists are a great source of information, and, like me, many are delighted to see families out and about in nature. Attend a banding demo offered by a bird observatory or other nature organization. Beyond providing stunning looks at birds, these programs connect audiences with the joy and beauty of birds in a way no picture or video can.
Look for a young birders club to join. The Black Swamp Bird Observatory pioneered a program in 2006, and now there are similar clubs in 16 states. These clubs allow youth to interact with their peers and nature in a stimulating setting. Keep an eye out for festivals with kid activities. Birding festivals are often looking for ways to get families involved. Every May at the Biggest Week in American Birding, we hold family bird walks, and they’re free! Other groups are doing similar things, so take a look near you.
Young Birders Just Want to Have Fun
Well-meaning bird experts will sometimes do young naturalists a disservice by focusing too much on birds. It’s always important to be flexible with kids. Encourage exploration, and never pass up an opportunity to discover something in the natural world. I’ve led many a bird walk where the highlight of the day wasn’t a bird at all. Perhaps the glimpse of a weasel—or something as simple as a caterpillar or pretty stone—became a lifelong memory.
For younger children, practice with your equipment first. Binoculars are a bit tricky to master and can be frustrating while in the field. Skip the identification altogether. Try having a bird behavior scavenger hunt without the pressure of pinning down an exact species. Ask kids to watch for dozens of behaviors, from preening and perching to walking and hopping.
Always remember that it’s about the kids. It’s not about the birds, though they certainly are a hook. Nothing is more inspiring than seeing children explore nature. Embrace this, and get out there with your children, your grandchildren or perhaps the neighbor kid down the street. Together we can ensure that future generations will understand and appreciate the magical chorus of frogs and the allure of the old watering hole that keep us in tune with nature.