Turn them into little citizen scientists by giving them a backyard tally sheet.

Prime birding season is here. From late April till mid-May, many migratory birds are returning from their tropical overwintering spots to colder regions of the U.S. and Canada. It is “a season of ardent song and courtship displays, as birds make claims to nesting territories and try to attract mates.” Sometimes the cacophony is so loud it’s hard to decipher individual songs.

Many children and teens participate in bird counts at this time of year, especially if they’re part of nature clubs or scouting groups, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, these outings have been cancelled. This is a blow to birding organizations that rely on this influx of citizen-sourced data. Meanwhile, families are also trying to homeschool, an undertaking made all the more challenging by limited resources. All together, this creates a great opportunity: Turn backyard birding into your family’s science class this month.

Not only will kids learn about the actual bird species frequenting their backyards, but they’ll become familiar with the concept of citizen science, when scientific research is conducted by volunteers who do not have formal education in a particular area. Drew Monkman and Jacob Rodenburg describe citizen science in their fabulous Big Book of Nature Activities (also cited in first paragraph):

“Participants can become the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ for professional scientists… Dentists are becoming lepidopterists, plumbers are contributing to our knowledge of lizards and grade-three students are tracking monarch butterflies. In the process, people feel more engaged with the scientific process and the natural world in general.”

Several organizations are asking for kids (and adults) to compile data on birds and submit it online. Birds Canada is hosting its annual Bird Blitz throughout the month of May, with a downloadable bird tally sheet and identification guide tailored to specific regions and the date. Cornell University’s annual Global Big Day is May 9, when people are asked to observe birds within a 24-hour period and submit findings online. (You can use the free eBird app.) It’s a pretty big deal, as the website reveals:

“Last year, 35,209 eBirders from 174 countries collected an astounding 92,284 checklists in a single day. Will you join us on Global Big Day to make 2020 the year that we surpass 100,000 checklists of birds in one day? Help us set a new checklist record!”

Kids may find they enjoy the act of birdwatching. In stressful, uncertain times, it can be a profoundly peaceful activity. When a Girl Scouts troop in New York City had its annual birding trip cancelled this month, the troop leaders urged the girls to stay in their own backyards or hike solo with immediate family members to make bird observations. Reuters quoted 11-year-old Jordan Miller, a Girl Scout Cadette: “It’s relaxing to just look outside. It gives you something to focus on instead of having your mind going to all these fears. You can calm down, looking at trees and seeing these majestic creatures flying. It’s cool.”

So how do you start? Birds Canada offers some suggestions.

Get your tally sheet ready, then choose a day in May or participate several times. (I plan to tack up a tally sheet on the wall and let my kids add to it whenever they make observation while playing outside.) Spend an hour or more observing birds and look for the following features – size, shape, colors, patterns, songs and calls, behaviors and habitats. If you don’t know what type of bird it is, use these details to identify it in a list of regional species. Sketching birds is another helpful way to learn to identify them. Here’s a short tutorial:

Last but not least, remember that birds can be anywhere: “Be observant, using eyes and ears to find birds in all the different habitats that make up your space. Birds can be found on the ground foraging for food, taking shelter in shrubs or trees, flying across the yard or high up in the sky!”

Turn them into little citizen scientists by giving them a backyard tally sheet.


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