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Local Safari! Birding with Kids

What if you could watch a lion hunt its antelope prey in your backyard? What if you could experience the search for the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino, buffalo) on safari while wiking your local trails? When we came back from our trip to Kenya 10 years ago totally smitten with the “hunt” for wildlife, I realized it’s possible to get the same sort of experience at home!

That’s when I started getting into birds. Yup. Me.

Bird watching is like being on safari. You search and listen and sit quietly… and then when you spot one, all the waiting is worth it! You watch what it does and identify it or remember what it looks like so you can check it off your list. Just like the “big 5” list... And sometimes you catch a rare one! On the trail, you share your sightings with other bird watchers, just as the safari guides tell each other where they spotted a lion or cheetah. There’s community in birding, just like safaris. The more you see, the more you want to see, and you find yourself searching like you’re on safari all of the time: when you’re actively birding, leisurely walking with friends, or even driving on the highway.

Maybe it doesn’t quite sound as exciting as looking for wild animals on the savannahs of Africa. But

it also doesn’t cost you nearly as much money or time planning! And children can take part, too!

Safari in Masai Mara, Kenya
Flamingos! in Kenya

In fact, birding is something children can enjoy whether they live in the middle of a forest or the middle of a city. As you know, I’m an elementary school teacher. I was doing a creative writing conference with a 4th grade boy who lived the middle of Boston. The fourth grade boys were going through a phase of writing all about video games, and it was driving their teachers nuts. I sat down with him and saw that the title of his three page piece was “Angry Birds”. Sigh. That dang silly angry birds game was creeping into their writing now! I explained, “I see that you had a lot to write about this angry birds game, but I want to remind you that the best stories come from things you experienced in the world outside of video games…”

He interrupted me, “No, no Ms. M, not Angry Birds… angry birds! Like real birds! They were so angry. There was a big one and the little ones were chasing him and peckin' at him and it was so crazy and I watched it for so long and I think the big one stole the little one’s egg. It was just right there in the sky above me!”

Oh. How wrong I was! This little boy from the city was in awe of the nature around him. He was curious and emotionally engaged. With birds!

Birds are a great gateway creature for nature discovery. You can find them everywhere, and they are often up to something interesting. Unfortunately, it’s easy to be “bird blind”. You can see a bird and say, “Oh, that’s a bird,” without any interest in what kind of bird it is or what it is doing. How do you get people, or let’s be more specific and say kids, interested in birds?

Here’s what I would do to get a child into birding:

  1. Get some binoculars for your child. Binoculars are awesome and a fun tool to use. Teach your child how to use them, so they aren’t just looking at blurry stuff and can actually see far away things better. Practice. Here's a set that seems like it could be great: Kidwinz Binos on Amazon.

  2. Listen to three bird calls on youtube. I recommend choosing two very common birds and one bird that is less common but “cool”. Here are youtube links to some birds I often notice while wiking: Mourning Dove, Robin, Downy Woodpecker, Baltimore Oriole.

  3. Read about birds. Read fun and engaging books and also get a bird identification book. Here is a kid version of a bird field guide that is good: Peterson Young Birder’s Guide. Get one for yourself, too, so you can double check the ID. This one is my favorite: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America.

  4. When you’re on the trails, listen for birds and look for signs of them (feathers, nests, droppings). See if your child can identify the bird calls you learned from youtube, and when he does, follow the sound.

  5. When you spot that bird, use those binoculars. Talk about what it looks like and what it’s doing.

  6. Write it down. Make a list of all the birds you’ve seen and where you saw them. The best thing to do is mark it in your field guide. If you are a person who is averse to writing in books, you can download a HUGE checklist like this one or simply make your own.

Once your child spots a couple of birds, learn about a couple more using the same system as above. As you both gain knowledge, you’ll both be more interested in finding and identifying local birds. You won’t be able to stop searching, just like you were on a safari. You'll go to websites like to find out where the latest bald eagle was sighted and you'll try to find him. You’ll see enormous hawks perched on lampposts on the highway. You’ll see a flash of orange and know exactly what it was. You’ll be the ones who see the falcon swoop above the community pool with a mouse in its talons while everyone else obliviously splashes about.

Start with birds, but then move on to insects, trees, and other plants. When you start seeing the biodiversity around you, life can become an exciting safari. Really. Try it!

And when you try it, let our budding community know how it went. Share your experiences in the comments below or on our Wike Baby Facebook page!

Happy wiking and happy birding!

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