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ALL HAIL OUR FAIR FEATHERED FRIENDS

You can teach children facts or you can teach them ways of learning. Facts themselves may become obsolete within a few years, but learning methods will last a lifetime. Here are some ways you can spark your child's interest in science through birdwatching.

Scientists take three basic steps to discover facts about the natural world. They ask questions, they observe closely, and they formulate answers to their questions based on their observations. That's the way even the most sophisticated lab work at Harvard begins and ends. There's no need for complicated books or a laboratory to help a youngster take a scientific approach to scholarship, the teaching tools for this project may already be in your backyard.

A tried-and-true way to interest a youngster in ornithology is by drawing his or her attention to everyday birds, before any actual scientific exploration begins. A simple birdfeeder by the kitchen window is a great starting point. "Look at that beautiful red bird," you might say, or "Can you hear that bird singing?" It's also interesting to share a few fun facts about these backyard birds, such as the following:

Starting Out Your Young Scientist

Take an opportunity to introduce your youngster to the scientific approach. Explain that scientists learn by asking questions and observing nature to find the answers. Encourage your child to be a backyard scientist and learn new facts, maybe even some facts that grown-up scientists have yet to discover. According to the Golden Nature Guide series on birds: "So much is still unknown about the way birds live that any careful observer can gather new information of scientific value."

Now it's time for you to help your child set up his or her very own lab and begin gathering information. Set up different feeding spots with varied sorts of feed so that you and your child will have a range of variables for observation: sunflower seeds in the hanging or pole feeder, or mixed seed and cracked corn scattered on the ground. Try putting some suet in an onion bag, tying it to a tree branch and see what happens.

Next allow your child to observe the feeding spots and pick three different species to watch over the next few weeks. Don't worry about the birds' proper names: "the blue one with the point on his head," "the little black and white bird," or "the one that hangs upside down on the pole feeder" will do just fine.

Choose a few favorite birds and encourage your child to draw their pictures. This is a good way to interest children in honing their skills of perception. Binoculars and cameras are helpful tools for enabling close observation. Don't rush to the library for a book; let your young scientist learn to see and record the information firsthand. Encourage him or her to add a written description below the drawing indicating bird size, shape, and coloring.

Once the drawings and descriptions are in place, encourage your child to ask questions about three specific bird species: When do they come? Do they arrive in a flock or alone? Do they eat at the hanging feeder or on the ground? How do they eat? Do they take seed away from the feeder or eat on the spot? What's the social arrangement of the feeding? Does one bird send the others off and get to eat first? Make a list or chart to note down the same observations for each different type of bird. In this way, your child will learn to rely on firsthand observations and knowledge building. Compare the list entries every few days, to see if the answers change over time. Scientists must perform experiments over and over in order to get accurate and complete information. Explain this to your child, and chart the observations together over several weeks.

Onto Further Observation

After about three weeks of data taking, your child can begin to write up his or her findings, and create a bird book. This is an important step to encourage language skills and sentence structure. Help him or her to turn each question into a paragraph, and then put the paragraphs for each bird in the same order. Or take down your child's dictation, if needed. The focus here is to make the book writing fun. Don't worry too much about neatness or penmanship, or finishing every question, just encourage the thinking process and keep your young ornithologist's mind at work!

Now the bird book is done, and it's time to compare the birds. How are they alike? Different? Even though the experiment is over, this is no time to forget your feathered friends. Birds remain in areas that offer no natural winter food and learn to depend on the seed in your backyard. So now that they've come to depend on you for meals, don't let them down! (See "Birdie Treats" sidebar.) And if your child has enjoyed the experiment, keep up the momentum! Plant low-maintenance spring flowers to attract other species. A row of sunflowers requires very little space, and these rapidly growing flowers fascinate kids and birds alike. Petunias can grow in a pot, and they will attract those wonderful helicopter hummingbirds.

A birdbath could be another wonderful treat for your special avian friends.

Now that your little ornithologist is learning to question and discover on his or her own, books and other resources can come into play. Perhaps another bird-related activity will interest your child, such as building a birdhouse. Or add new chapters to the bird book such as observations on nesting and family raising. Learning about birds might lead your youngster to take an interest in other earth sciences: Why not help your child plant several rows of beans in the garden using different composts and fertilizers, or watch and compare three different types of trees budding? The goal is to encourage your youngster to observe, question, and answer. Resist the temptation to immediately answer questions yourself; remember, you are teaching your children ways to gain knowledge. Sit back and watch their curiosity and sense of wonder soar with each new scientific discovery!

For More Information:

The Audubon Society

Written by: Linda Batt


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