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Every Friday in the River Houses we invite you and your students to learn about a different group of North American birds from your recommended homeschool bird guide (riverhouses.org/books) — it’s a great way to add a few minutes of informal science, geography, natural history, and imagination to your homeschool schedule. (We started this new feature last week with an introduction to your bird guide.)
This week’s family is the Ducks, Geese, and Swans — the Anatidae (bird guide page 14). Usually we’ll cover a couple of families each week, but the ducks, geese, and swans are such a large group we’ll spread them out over two weeks.
With smaller children, you can take our Friday Bird Families posts as opportunities to just use your bird guide as a picture book and spend a few minutes looking at all the wonderful wildlife. For older students, one of our objectives is to help them become fluent with a technical reference book that’s packed with dense information. Here’s the introduction to this bird family — you’ll find it on page 14:
“DUCKS · GEESE · SWANS — Family Anatidae. Worldwide family. Web-footed, gregarious birds, ranging from small ducks to swans. Largely aquatic, but geese, swans, and some ‘puddle ducks’ also graze on land. Species: 160 World, 66 N.A. [North America].“
If you’re training young naturalists, teach them to ask and answer from the reference guide the very first questions any naturalist would ask about a new group: How many species? (160.) Where do they occur? (Worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Yes, 66 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Web-footed, varying in size, mostly aquatic, and as you can see from scanning the pictures, most have fairly plump bodies, short legs, and long necks.) And by the way, “gregarious” is a beautiful word, isn’t it — be sure to send someone to your homeschool dictionary to look that one up. 🔎
Pick a representative species to look at in detail each week and read the entry aloud, or have your students study it and then narrate it back to you, explaining all the information it contains. This week, for example, why not investigate one of the most familiar of all North American birds: the Canada Goose (pages 20–21).
All sorts of biological information is packed into the brief Canada Goose species description on page 20 — can your students tease it out? How big is this bird? (30–43 inches long — quite variable!) What’s its scientific name? (Branta canadensis.) Canada Goose is a species that has a lot of geographical variation across the continent, so part of the description explains that in detail, and the illustrations on the facing page show some of that variation as well. What does it sound like? (Honk-a-lonk.😊) Where does this species occur? Will you be able to find it where you live? At what times of year? (Study the range description and range map carefully to answer those questions, and see the book’s back flap for a map key.)
Like many other geese, Canada Geese are famous for their large “vees” — migratory flight formations — surely one of the most magnificent sights in the natural world. (That photo is one of my own.)
And of course everyone loves Canada Geese because they honk. 🔊
You can do a little ten-minute study just like this with any of the species in your bird guide that catch your interest. Take a look at the four species of swans on page 22, for example — can your students figure out how they differ from each other? (They are very tricky to identify — you’re teaching your students to pay attention to fine details here.) Our fall term in the River Houses, just getting underway, is Cygnus Term. Where might that name come from? 🦢
In all these Friday Bird Families posts, our aim will not be to have you teach specific facts. What we hope to do instead is to provide starting points that you and your students can branch away from in many different directions, and also to show how you can help your students develop the kind of careful reading, observation, and interpretation skills that they will use in all their future academic work.
What ornithological discoveries have you made in your homeschool this week? 😊
❡ Homeschool birds: We think bird study is one of the best subjects you can take up in a homeschool environment. It’s suitable for all ages, it can be made as elementary or as advanced as you wish, and birds can be found just about anywhere at any season of the year. Why not track your own homeschool bird observations on the free eBird website sponsored by Cornell University. It’s a great way to learn more about what’s in your local area and about how bird populations change from season to season. 🐦
❡ Words for birds: You may not think of your homeschool dictionary (riverhouses.org/books) as a nature reference, but a comprehensive dictionary will define many of the standard scientific terms you will encounter in biology and natural history, although it will not generally contain the proper names of species or other taxonomic groups that aren’t part of ordinary English. (In other words, you’ll find “flamingo” but not Phoenicopterus, the flamingo genus.) One of the most important things students should learn to look for in the dictionary is the information on word origins: understanding the roots of scientific terms makes it much easier to understand and remember their meaning. 📖
❡ Come, here’s the map: Natural history and geography are deeply interconnected. One of the first questions you should teach your students to ask about any kind of animal or plant is, “What is its range? Where (in the world) does it occur?” Our recommended homeschool reference library (riverhouses.org/books) includes an excellent world atlas that will help your students understand many aspects of biogeography — the science of the geographical distribution of living things. 🌎
❡ Rivers in the sky: How many birds are migrating this week? You can find out from the BirdCast website, also sponsored by Cornell University, which offers daily bird migration forecasts in the spring and fall for the entire United States. 🦅
❡ State birds: One member of our bird-family-of-the-week is a United States state bird: the Hawaiian Goose or Nene (Branta sandvicensis). Paradoxically, you won’t be able to find the Hawaiian Goose in your North American bird guide, however, because Hawaii, while part of the United States, isn’t part of North America! But don’t despair: the Hawaiian Goose species profile on the eBird website will let you learn more about it. 🇺🇸
❡ Nature notes: This is one of our regular Homeschool Natural History posts. Add your name to our free weekly mailing list (riverhouses.org/newsletter) and get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year. 🦆