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How to grow a birder from the ground

October 7, 2010
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In the last year and a half since my son was born I’ve been attempting to walk the fine line between being an avid birder and a devoted family man.  It’s not always an easy route, mind you, and it’s a testimony to the assistance of my wife as much as anybody that I’m able to keep this blog updated regularly with new content for which I often have to be out in the field to get.  Even so, those days of Big Years and long hours spent chasing rarities around the state may be mostly outside of my means at this current moment, at least if I want to keep my family intact, but I’m trying to lay the groundwork so that future Big Years and weekend jaunts to the coast aren’t out of the question.  To do all that I need a partner, one for whom birding is as exciting for them as it is for me.  And as the various and sundry birding pals I’ve come across over the years never seem to stick around in the area for long, a captive audience would be nice.  Fortunately, I’ve created the potential for one, I just need to aim him in the right direction.  The plan is simple, to make Noah a birder.  But how?

From the beginning Noah has been birding with me, his first outing occurring not more than two weeks after his birth.  Now he’s a regular field companion at least once a week.  Early on I tried taking him in a stroller but found it difficult to use on uneven terrain.  With no real interest in purchasing a model with large wheels, I switched to carriers which offered the freedom to go offroad more often.  These days Noah rides on my back in a backpack and while he may or may not fall asleep an hour into our walks, he’s lately been more aware, offering more opportunities to look at trees and butterflies and squirrels and deer and whatever else happens to catch our eyes when the birding slows down.  He’s still not 100% into stopping and working a flock of warblers, though he does look in the direction I’m looking and point at the right birds, but we’re getting there.  I generally see less than I would on my own, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make at this point.  For the greater good, obviously.

All this has been key to instilling a positive perception of getting outdoors and looking for birds.  And now when I ask him where the birds are, I generally get something like this.

That’s all well and good, but that’s hardly all we’ve been doing.  As any birder knows, birding is not just something you specifically set out to do, it’s something you’re always doing.  Birds are everywhere and once you’re suddenly made aware of their ubiquity in the word around you, it’s as if a shade has been lifted from your eyes.  So when Noah and I are out and about, we look for birds at every opportunity and every one we see I take the time to point out.  He’s gotten quite good and finding his own flying birds and something impressive like a Turkey Vulture is even worth a “Whoa!” or two.

More than that, I point out the sounds that the birds are making and try to imitate them.  This last bit has taken a life of its own when we were listening to Bill Thompson’s This Birding Life podcast on the way to school one morning. The most recent podcast featured the Bird Call Lady who Noah found completely hilarious, particularly the enthusiastic California Quail call.  Since then, just about any bird sound I hear when I’m with him I’ll try to approximate, poorly mind you, the call.  This has been a pretty fun game, and is how we learned the calls of the American Crow and the Blue Jay at about the same time we learned dog and tiger.  And to the chagrin of his mother, Noah has taken a liking to the bird song CDs I have in my car, especially the bizarre ducks and game birds.  Kids love funny sounds, I might as well take advantage of that.

I admit I’m no different than any other eager parent, looking to influence my child’s interests.  I’m certainly not even alone even in Noah’s world, as he has grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more with plans and high hopes to make their mark on the person he will become and attempting subtly or not so to be the one who will turn on a spark in a kid.  None of us have any ideas as to whether these actions will have any profound effect, but at this stage in his life it’s as much fun for the adults around him to dream of who he’ll be as it is for him to discover any number of new things.  So I leave out my bird books and point at the covers and churf like a Red-bellied Woodpecker and stop and note the Crows flying past.

But will it make him a birder? Only time will tell.

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9 Comments
  1. October 7, 2010 1:25 pm

    Good stuff. After I attempted to pshich a bird in my backyard, my son thinks you have to blow though my binoculars to see birds. Every time he has a chance to grab my bins, he tries and send a generous amount of spit in my eyecups….

    I also have the big wheel stroller, but have better success with the backpack.

  2. October 7, 2010 2:51 pm

    With a two year old daughter, I can totally relate to the difficulties in balancing birding and family. I also hope that my daughter will become a future birding companion but it sounds like I need one of those backpacks! I also need to teach her that birds dont want to converse because they fly away when she tells them, “Hola”!

  3. jmj permalink
    October 7, 2010 3:15 pm

    We have “The Backyard Birdsong Guide” series (both east and west) by Kroodsma at home. It’s one of those books with the built-in speaker and has about 75 or so bird species in each with several songs for each species. My daughter has listened and paged through and played bird songs on that book practically since she was aware of the world around her. At 3.5 years old, she can identify dozens of birds by song, and sometimes is quicker to ID a song than I am. She is endlessly amused by the croaking yellow-headed blackbird and has little actions that she always does along with the western scrub-jay. Sometimes she’ll just sit on the couch for at least 30 minutes straight playing different bird sounds. I’ve found that to be a really great vector for getting her interested in birds. She also comes out with me on birding trips from time to time of course, and I have an old pair of cheaper binoculars that she calls ‘hers’, which makes it a bit more fun for her as well. But I now also have a 8-month old son which makes getting out of the house just that much harder these days.

  4. October 8, 2010 12:05 am

    This is a great post. My daughter is seventeen months old and we are going through a similar situation. The backpack has been great, though she prefers to walk around herself now, which has really slowed things up, or not, depending on how you look at it. It’s awesome watching her explore, picking up every stick and rock she finds, or chasing ants. She spends so much time looking at things on the ground, and yet she seems to notice most of the birds that call. The awareness in children this age is so acute. One of my daughter’s favorite books, early on, was Kenn Kaufman’s field guide. She spent an inordinate amount of time looking at and pointing to his photo on the back cover, rather than the birds inside! I think she was saying, I want to know birds like he knows them someday.

  5. Nate permalink*
    October 8, 2010 10:28 am

    @Laurent- Thanks hilarious. I’ve been working on pishing with Noah. He thinks it’s funny when I do it, but he doesn’t do it himself yet.

    @Pat- We say bye-bye to the birds too, but I’m always happy when one can elicit a “Whoa!”. A low-flying Turkey Vulture did that the other day.

    @jmj- I’ll have to check that book out. Two kids would definitely be a handful in the field, if we decided to have another I’d want to do something similar to what I’m doing now, but I could see the addition of a little kid Noah as an additional wrinkle. I’m lucky it’s just the two of us now.

    @David- I couldn’t agree more. The other day I found an ant infestation in out house, while I was sweeping them up and disposing of them, Noah was following them around, pointing and saying “NT! NT”. Not particularly helpful. Having bird books scattered around is something I was going to mention in this post, but edited it out. I received the new Stokes guide recently for review and it’s been sitting on the coffee table for a few days now. Noah really likes pointing at the Painted Bunting on the cover and opening it to look at the birds inside. I don’t know that he makes the connection between the birds in the book and the birds in real life, but I don’t think it will be long before he does.

  6. October 8, 2010 6:15 pm

    Hi Nate, I have three kids (8 , 3 and 3) and I’ve found it best not to push too hard. I look after my twins four days a week and we get out birding a couple of times weather permitting. They do take so much in. A year or so ago my daughter was having her nappy changed near her bedroom window, I stood her up and her finger shot past my face pointing from the window and she shouted “AGPIE!” I was as proud as punch of her first correct non-generic (i.e. duck) identification (Black-billed Magpie). I have also found they love the birding apps on the Iphone I have and can spend hours looking at pictures and playing calls.

  7. October 8, 2010 6:17 pm

    I have a boy of 20 and one of 18. The youngest not interested. The eldest might one day be. At the age of 7 he could tell any raptor from the European Guide to raptors and we used to count different species on the way to school everyday. But in last five years he has shown little interest. However I sometimes say whats making that bird call and he’s nearly always right.

  8. Nate permalink*
    October 10, 2010 1:28 pm

    @Alan- It’s not my intention to push too hard. I think at this point my aim is to take him out and get him used to being in the field and looking for stuff (it doesn’t have to be birds). If he’s not enjoying it, I won’t make him do anything, but he’s at an age where just about anything new is really fun. We’ll see where it goes. But his teachers at daycare tell me he points out all the birds flying over the playground and caws at all the crows, so something it sticking in there.

    @Craig- That’s wild. My sister is the same way. When she was younger she was never super interested in nature the same way I was, but things clearly stayed in there as she’s a pretty good naturalist based on what she picked up as a child without too much work. She’s a science teacher now so maybe those experiences lay a foundation that’s not apparent until much later.

  9. October 17, 2010 9:54 pm

    Great! A wonderful way to spend time with your son, as well as pass down an activity and knowledge set that means a lot to you.

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