How to grow a birder from the ground
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.