How do you get a five-year-old interested in birds? Tell him the scientific name of American Robin. Hilarity will ensue. I promise.
Earlier this year I took a trip east to visit my brother and his family. My nephews Freddy and Benny are eight and five. Since we live across the country from each other I only get to see them once or maybe twice a year and we really haven’t had many chances to go birding together. Every once in a while I get a text from Benny through my brother, asking questions about the birds he sees: are Blue Jays blue because they eat blue berries? What do hawks eat? What is the bird that sounds like <insert onomatopoeia here>?
Both boys are walking dinosaur encyclopedias, so birds are a natural contemporary link. When I asked if they wanted to go on a birding adventure with me, they both responded with an enthusiastic yes (well, Benny was definitely into the birds; I think Freddy was in it more for the adventure potential).
ABA Blog Manager Nate Swick lives in the same town as my brother and has a son who is about the same age as Benny, so I called him up and asked if he wanted to take me and the boys birding. We met at a local park, bundled against the cold weather, binoculars and field guides in hand, talking about the birds we might see.
We spotted Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and all kinds of eastern birds that just don’t occur where I live in Arizona. We played with sticks and ran races and poked in the dirt and explored an old shed. We took a snack break in the lobby of the public library and ate mandarins and pretzels. Attention spans of 5-year-olds in cold weather can be short, but there was lots to see and do and we all had a good morning (19 species in under an hour of birding).
(Aside: my Leica 8×32 Ultravids were PERFECT for small hands and faces. We had a serious talk about always keeping the binocular strap around your neck and not walking and looking at the same time, but those compact binoculars sure made it easy to share my optics with small kids.)
After the Swicks took off, Freddy, Benny, and I returned to the library, where Benny made a beeline to the bird books. He found a great field guide to the birds of North Carolina, so we checked it out to study at home. After a stop for some hot chocolate to warm up, we headed back to the house.
We spent the next few days looking through the field guide, giggling about migrating turds (I feel compelled to explain, for the uninitiated among us, that the scientific name of the American Robin is Turdus migratorius), and talking about birding by ear. I told Benny that, to me, chickadees sound like they are saying, “Cheeseburger!” (That got a giggle, too).
I know the boys enjoyed birding with me, but I don’t see them that frequently. I wondered if they’d just had a fun morning with their aunt, or if they were actually interested in birds.
The other week my sister-in-law sent me a text. She and Benny were in the kitchen and a persistent chickadee was calling by the window. My youngest nephew turned excitedly to his mother and exclaimed, “That’s the cheeseburger bird!”
And a birder was born.