The arrival of a baby entails many lifestyle changes for new parents. Sleepless nights are in; early morning bird trips are out. The sight of endless flocks of shorebirds has now replaced the sight of endless diapers. But fear not, there is definitely birding after baby, it’s just different than what you are used to.
Certainly, before your child learns how to walk, it’s difficult to get much free time for something as “frivolous” as birding. But once your fledgling starts to show signs of wanting to slip outside of the nest, it’s a perfect time to introduce them to the wonderful world of those mysterious things that fly in the sky.
Getting started is really quite easy. All you need is a view out a window. Kids are fascinated by things that fly because, well, they can’t do it and it looks like fun.
One of the best ways to introduce kids to birdwatching is to bring the birds to you. Install a feeder that is easily visible from a window, preferably away from bushes or other “cat cover”. Leave a pair of small binoculars near the window, along with a bird book for them to look through. They don’t need to identify a bird they see outside; most kids prefer to simply turn the pages and look at the pretty birds.
Other ways to get your kids interested in birds include:
- have them make bird houses or feeders. There are many easy-to make plans on the internet or at nature stores, as well as easy-to-assemble kits.
- take them to the local museum. Seeing the bird displays up close will give them a better appreciation of just what they are looking at when they are outside.
- if it’s lousy weather outside, you could watch nature videos about birds and wildlife. And more computer programs are becoming available which combine fun games about animals with information that’s fun to learn.
Give your child a field guide. It thrills them to have their very own “big person” book, and kids will flip through the book, looking at bird pictures for hours. (This also works very well when they are sitting in the car).
One thing to keep in mind: as an experienced birder, you may only get truly excited about rare birds, but young children can get excited about anything in the natural world, including those scrawny-looking House Sparrows on the sidewalk.
Plastic binoculars are great for young toddlers but they just don’t cut it for older children. There is nothing more frustrating for a child than having mom or dad get all excited about a bird but not being able to see it for themselves because their $10 techno-color, super-spy binoculars are better designed for saving the world than for actually focusing on birds.
A good pair of child-sized binoculars can be surprisingly inexpensive. Besides which, it will save you the stress of watching your six-year-old swing your $1500 Leica’s wildly around while walking through a deep rain puddle. Learning to take good care of their binoculars also helps teach young children about taking responsibility for their own, and other people’s, field equipment.
Where to birdwatch
Birding with kids can start anywhere: from the couch by the window, while playing in the backyard, or even while sitting in the car, watching gulls fight over a dropped PBJ sandwich.
In the car
When you and the children are driving in the car:
- keep a few bird books, and other nature books, in the car so they have something to leaf through while traveling.
- on long drives with kids, make frequent stops. It makes for a slower trip, but a much more relaxing one.
- one other tip; take activities the kids enjoy (puzzles, dolls, toys, etc.) so that they don’t become bored on the long drive to those really good birding sites. From their point of view, anything over twenty minutes may be a long drive.
In the field
In addition to birding equipment, kids will need two other things for the trip, even a relatively short trip; non-birding stuff and snacks.
The non-birding stuff includes things which kids need to explore their world, like bug nets, paper bags to hold neat plants and cool rocks, collecting jars (to hold the mad hornet really close to mommy’s nose), a bucket to hold lots of other bugs, etc.. The list can get pretty long. But you certainly don’t need all of these things for each trip. The great thing about young children (and many older ones) is that they will find a thousand fascinating things to examine within fifty feet of the car.
Which brings up another point; as an adult, you will need at adjust your expectations. Long walks through dense bush and clouds of mosquitoes don’t work with children, no matter how great the destination. However, sitting still in one area and watching small birds flitter by is often a great way to learn how to “see” animals in the wild.
When a child gets bored with birds (and they will reach this point, usually much sooner than you hope), keep them interested by showing them everything. To a child, everything is interesting. Especially if they get to touch it.
Snacks – these are important. The success of many birding trips can be guaranteed just by having a good supply of snacks and drinks. Especially if it’s something you can all nibble on as you’re traveling or while stopping at some nice place during your walk.
There are good bugs and bad bugs. For the bad bugs, you should bring a child-safe insect repellant and a good hat. For the good bugs, you should have bug net and several collecting jars. Even if you take nothing home with you, it’s really cool for a child to hold a jar with a real, live bug in it. Better yet, let your child hold the bug in their hands. Children develop their bug and animal phobias from the behavior of adults. If they see you holding a spider without freaking out, chances are they will want to hold it as well. And kids love to have grasshoppers take a ride on their nose.
Kid-carrier backpacks are wonderful. When trying one out at the store (preferably with a child in it), remember that you will sometimes want to tip your head back. This is easier to do in some styles of backpacks than in others. And it should be adjustable so that the child can look over your shoulder and not just at the back of your head.
Don’t forget the sunhat and sunscreen. And good shoes. Actually, several pairs of shoes. And rubber boots. (And wet wipes, for all the mud that isn’t on the rubber boots).
Give the kids their own notebook, for making lists, drawing pictures, pressing flowers, etc. Encourage them to draw what they see. A handful of colored pens and pencils are always welcome.
Some other bits of advice
Remember to keep it pretty simple. This is not the time to demonstrate your vast knowledge of the taxonomy of passerine subspecies. Basic descriptions and information are more than enough at this stage.
Keep the trips short enough so that they don’t get overly tired or bored.
Show a keen interest in any good birds they find (those birds being anything they think is a good bird).
Let them pick the birding location, even if it just happens to have a playground nearby. The key is to focus on the outing itself; the birds are often just an extra bonus.
You probably won’t see any of the more secretive birds, as kids and silence don’t always come in the same package. But if you let them fully enjoy the birds they don’t scare away, the memory of those birds will stay with them for a very long time.
For younger children, birdwatching is less an activity on its own and more a single part of a larger experience. Allow them to pursue other interests while out birdwatching; obsessive birding is a trait reserved for adults.
And remember to be nice to your kids: when you have finally reached your senior years, the kids are the people you will have to rely on for a ride out to the local birdwatching hot spots.