Kids hanging a feeder. Photo by Bird By Bird Idaho
Countless studies have shown that hands-on activities are the most effective at teaching environmental and conservation principles. Those activities often resonate with a deep sense of human fascination with the natural world.
One of the simplest of these activities is feeding birds. Feeders and seed are relatively cheap, and feeders placed in yards and school yards can provide years of both enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. The latter include problem solving, strategizing, economic decision making, ecology, spatial design, controversy, math, and citizen science.
1) Choice of feeders and seeds. The first step is to figure out which feeders and which types of seed will work best where you are. Many species prefer black sunflower seeds. But others prefer thistle, millet, or peanuts. Some species really like suet.
There are many sources of information on the internet to help guide your choices. I like Project FeederWatch (https://feederwatch.org/) for a number of reasons (see below), but one of them is their page on “Food and Feeder Preferences of Common Feeder Birds.” This interactive site lets you see what species you can expect based on your geographic location, and the types of feeders and seeds you are interested in. You can check out possibilities for your own yard or school and provide advice to your grandmother on the other side of the country.
Hanging a feeder. Photo by Bird By Bird Idaho
2) Feeder placement. Most feeders are best hung from tree branches or from poles stuck into the ground where there are no branches available. With poles, you have almost unlimited options for location. Consider where observers can most easily watch the feeders. It’s nice to have them readily observable from inside the house or classroom.
Realize squirrels love bird seed and will happily eat and/or store everything you can put out there. Use squirrel baffles to keep them from climbing down to feeders in trees and up to feeders on poles. If you love squirrels, give them their own feeding station elsewhere! Squirrels can also jump 6-8 feet like flying monkeys, so make sure feeders are far enough away from low branches and deck railings.
Finally, a major source of bird mortality is window collisions. Birds often cannot tell the difference between an open sky and the reflection of an open sky. Feeders should not be too close to windows, but this depends heavily on the configuration of the area. Be prepared to move feeders if you hear or see birds bouncing off the glass. Also have some window decals on hand to place on problem windows. Search “window strike prevention” to discover many options.
Photo of Red-breasted Nuthatch and Lesser Goldfinches by Ken Miracle
3) Identifying species. Some readers may be surprised I didn’t start with bird identification. Yes, I think that’s the most fun and lasting part of feeding birds, but you can see there are many other beneficial aspects. Feeders bring birds to you and those birds usually hang around long enough for observers to get good looks and even good photos. This is somewhat unlike birding in the woods where species are often far away, fleeting, or hiding.
There are many guides to bird identification out there but let me just recommend three. First, the phone app, Merlin, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is free to use, and it is excellent! It will help you identify birds while providing other information such as vocalizations and range maps.
Second, the web site All About Birds (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/), also from Cornell, gives information similar to Merlin but also gives you the chance to compare similar species. It provides photos and a few sentences on how to distinguish, say, a Downy Woodpecker from a Hairy Woodpecker or a Black-capped Chickadee from a Mountain Chickadee.
Third, although paper field guides (like all paper media) are drifting out of style, I still keep some guides within reach. My favorite is the National Geographic guide to the birds of North America, but those from Peterson, Sibley, and others are great. And check out Field Guide to Boise’s Birds, which focuses on the 99 most common species found along the Boise River.
4) Observing birds. It’s one thing to see a bird and identify it. It’s another to watch it for an extended period to see what it’s doing. The first thing you’ll need to figure out is, how to I keep track of the same bird? Ornithologists often mark birds with colored and numbered leg bands so they can tell one bird from another. But most individual birds are naturally slightly different from their friends and relatives. Differences in pattern or color can do the trick. Can you see it? Can you track one bird?
Kids observing birds. Photo by Bird By Bird Idaho
5) Counting birds. Counting the birds on your feeders and in your yard around the feeders can feed straight into long-term databases on bird populations. These data help scientists figure out which species are increasing and which decreasing. Project FeederWatch (see above) and the Christmas Bird Count (https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/ Christmas-bird-count) both make use of citizen scientists to tally birds. But even if you don’t report these counts, you can still make the counts and then graph them over time. Principles of the scientific method can be fully employed here.
6) Cats. Cats, both pet and feral types, are the #1 killer of birds in the U.S. and in Canada. Keep your cats indoors. Cat advocates often deny the science of cat predation. If you want a controversial topic to research and discuss, this is a good one. And if you need a little building project for those eager learners, check out Catios!
7) Landscaping with native flowering and fruiting plants. It’s a short jump from the idea of feeding birds with feeders to the idea of providing naturally occurring food in your yard or school yard. Explore native species that provide flowers and fruits. This leads to discussions of native vs alien species. You get pollinator conservation as a bonus. For information on native plants, see the Idaho Native Plant Society website (https://idahonativeplants.org/).
8) Nest boxes. You can not only feed the birds but also give them places to nest. In most cases, this means putting out nest boxes. Only a few species nest in boxes, and their requirements for boxes and habitat differ. This leads to more research on what’s possible in the space you have.
9) Trail and video cameras. There are a variety of trail and video cameras you can put out, aimed at feeders or nest boxes or wherever you like. Because these cameras catch any motion, you might pick up owls, squirrels, raccoons, or just a lot of leaves blowing in the wind! This is an exciting window on discovery, suitable for all curious minds.
10) Water. Birds love water. They drink and bathe, no matter how cold it is out there. Water features need heat, obviously, so that may limit where you can put a bird bath or little fountain.
Dissecting Owl Pellets in the Classroom. Photo by Bird By Bird Idaho
11) Bird By Bird Idaho. This program “brings birds to classrooms and classrooms to birds” (https://www.facebook.com/birdbybirdidaho). BBB is run by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and is now in its 13th year. Teachers can sign up their classes to participate, and in exchange get monthly visits by ornithologists that include various activities, including live birds!
Bringing birds into your yard or school yard is easy, and it leads to a variety of learning opportunities. Contact us if you would like an educator to come to your room or classroom and scope it out. You can’t miss!