Thursday, 8 January 2015

Introducing birdwatching to children

Are you a birdwatcher?  Whether you are a back-door birdwatcher admiring the birds on your garden feeder, or enjoy nothing better than getting up before the sun, heading down to your nearest estuary reserve and watching the geese and lapwings greeting the sunrise, while sipping from a flask of cocoa in a hide; bird-watching is a relaxing hobby that brings you closer to nature.  Wouldn't you like to share that hobby with your child or grandchild?  It can be a bit nerve-wracking though.  Can you imagine the disgruntled faces turning around from their binoculars and scopes as the birds fly off in a hurry from the sound of a stampeding and screeching toddler in the hide?  It's not a pretty thought.  So how do we introduce this wonderful hobby to children?
First, get them interested in birds.  A little knowledge goes a long way in getting a child interested in something.  Try some of the following:

  • make bird feeders with them.  A quick internet search will reveal loads of ideas using recycled milk bottles etc.  
  • Feed the birds.  Make bird-cakes using fat, seeds, grated cheese, meal worms, bread crumbs and any other tit-bits that you can find.
  • Teach them the names of some common birds.  You can do this by looking out of the window and naming some of the birds, but you could also try making a set of bird picture cards (two of each) and playing memory pairs or snap.  As you pair each card you can name it, and your tot will soon be able to tell the difference between a robin, a heron, a golden eagle, a blackbird and a chaffinch.
  • Get crafty and make bird nest boxes or model birds.
  • For any bird-watching activity provide them with a simple picture spotting sheet (to tick off any birds they see) or simple bird ID book (the RSPB do some excellent children's ones) and a pair of children's binoculars so they can actually see what you're peering at.
Now teach them how to be quiet.  It's all very well telling children that they need to be quiet or they will scare the wildlife away, but many children don't actually know how to stop their feet sounding like herds of elephants.  Play whispering games - whisper a command (hop 3 times, turn around and touch the ground, come and get a sweet) and see how the child starts to be quieter so that they can hear the whisper; whisper messages to one another etc.  Play tiptoe games - they have to sneak up on you and pinch the keys from under your chair without you hearing them.  Talk about fairy feet and fairy voices.  A bit of practice pays dividends.

The first few times you go on a bird-watching expedition, keep it close to home.  Set up a hide in the garden (a small tent covered in camouflage fabric, or a bean teepee), and make yourselves comfortable with binoculars, a snack and a flask.  Keep it short - aim to tick off 8 different species, or to stay out for fifteen minutes or so the first time.  Next you could aim for a less popular hide, for example at a local woodland - where your child will be unlikely to disturb anybody except you and the birds.  Make sure that each visit is a success, with a couple of birds identified and praise for quietness.  If they enjoy these, and seem to have got the hang of being quiet for the required time, you can progress to the RSPB reserve (with the promise of cake from the cafe at the end!).  

Congratulations!  You have a new bird-watching partner!

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