Birds. They’re strikingly intelligent, often jaw-droppingly gorgeous, masterful courters and nest makers, and some are givers of gifts. They’re highly social and communicative, singers of symphonic melodies and travelers of the globe.
As we’ve remained rooted to our homes during the pandemic, outside our windows and in our backyards the rhythms and routines of our local birds offer a sense of continuity and normalcy. Connecting with the natural world has the power to calm us, quiet our worries and instill wonder and joy.
With the help of Maureen Geiger, chair of Sacramento Audubon’s Field Activities Committee and a birder for 40 years, we put together the following tips to birding with kids—introducing their curious minds to nature and science—in their own backyards. But you don’t have to be a kid to love this.
Find a sit spot. Help kids select a location where they can easily observe birds and blend into the environment with their back up against a tree, some bushes or a wall. Geiger suggests kids try to sit (without fidgeting) for at least 10 minutes at the same time every day to observe their surroundings. “The more we sit still, the more we become part of the landscape . . . and the birds will no longer consider us a threat,” she says.
Use your owl eyes. Owls are exceptional observers. They look straight ahead and still see what’s going on above, below and on both sides without moving their eyes, Geiger says, paraphrasing Jon Young, author of “What the Robin Knows.” She says, “The more you do that, the better an observer you are.”
Listen to their songs. Kids can train their ears to tune out extraneous noise like traffic and train whistles and really begin to key in to the bird sounds, says Geiger. Challenge kids to identify three different bird sounds: peeps, chirps and trills.
Tools you can use. Binoculars, if available (though all the birds on our list can be seen without them), pen and notebook to record observations, and a field guide (try National Geographic’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America”) or an app like Sibley Birds, 2nd ed.
Walk like a fox. Another one of Young’s fun descriptors, walking like a fox is a gentle way of moving instead of walking quickly and swinging our arms like we normally do, says Geiger. Encourage kids to walk like a fox among the birds without scaring them away.
Record what you see. Scientists record the date, time, weather, location and what they saw. “The scrub jay flew to the birdbath, took a bath and flew up into the tree. That’s a great observation!” says Geiger. “When you put all those observations together, you’ll find you’ve learned a lot about how birds behave.”
Use your resources. Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s site All About Birds (allaboutbirds.org/news) for a comprehensive online resource on bird identification and behavior, activities, challenges and live bird cams where kids can watch birds in the wild from front-row seats.
Become a citizen scientist. Once kids identify the birds they see, they can be citizen scientists by going to eBird.org—the largest citizen science database in the world—and entering the birds they saw, says Geiger. That information helps scientists make important discoveries and decisions.
10 Local Birds To Spot in Your Backyard or Neighborhood (listed in order of smallest to largest)
Anna’s Hummingbird (4 inches)—These small and extremely fast birds fly like bumblebees, and the rapid beat of their wings sounds like a hum.
House Finch (6 inches)—The shock of red on the throat, breast and head only appears on males. Notice the thick bill for cracking seeds.
Black Phoebe (6¾ inches)—These bold little birds are often seen on perches like fences, waiting to snack on flying insects.
Western Bluebird (7 inches)—Males are a shocking cobalt blue with a rich rust-colored chest and back. Females are paler in color, some so much that they look almost dingy brown.
Cedar Waxwing (7¼ inches)—Always found in groups near the tops of trees, these birds have easily identifiable field marks: crests (head feathers that can be raised), black face masks, yellow-tipped tails and little red bulbs on their wingtips.
Nuttall’s Woodpecker (7½ inches)—These birds are often seen hopping up and down tree trunks pecking at insects in the bark. Males have bright red on their head (as shown), while females don’t.
Northern Mockingbird (10 inches)—These curious, entertaining birds can be found in trees, bushes and on the ground. Their tails often point upward, and they are known for their continuous songs of strung-together sounds.
California Scrub Jay (11 inches)—Often mistaken for a blue jay (which doesn’t live in California) or bluebird, this bird is much larger, with an overall white throat and chest (with a variable blue necklace) and a white stripe above its eye.
Yellow-Billed Magpie (16½ inches)—This gorgeous California native bird with its bright-yellow beak and long tail thrives in flocks, often in parks and near our rivers.
Turkey Vulture (27 inches)—Look up for large, black soaring birds with wings that make the shape of a slight V.