For live links, click to: riverhouses.org/2019-grebes
Every Friday 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.
This week’s bird families are the Grebes and the Flamingos — the Podicipedidae and the Phoenicopteridae (bird guide pages 68–71). The Grebes and Flamingos are both aquatic, but that’s about all they have in common.
If you’re teaching smaller children, you can take our Friday Bird Families posts as opportunities just to use your bird guide as a picture book and spend a few minutes each week looking at all the wonderful wildlife — birds they may see someday.
With older students, one of our objectives is to help them become fluent with a technical reference book that’s packed with dense information. Here are the introductions to these two bird families, written in the guide’s customary telegraphic style — you’ll find them on pages 68 and 70:
“GREBES — Family Podicipedidae. A worldwide family of aquatic diving birds. Lobed toes make them strong swimmers. Grebes are infrequently seen on land or in flight. Species: 23 World, 7 N.A. [North America]“
“FLAMINGOS — Family Phoenicopteridae. Large waders with big, bent bills, used to strain food from the waters of shallow lakes and lagoons. Species: 6 World, 1 N.A. [North America]“
When you’re training young naturalists, teach them to ask and answer from their field guide the very first questions any naturalist would ask about a new group — a group such as, for example, the grebe family. How many species are known? (23.) Are there any near us? (Seven in North America; the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Aquatic diving birds with lobed, not webbed, feet — and so on.)
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, why not investigate a rather cute aquatic bird found all across North America: the Pied-billed Grebe (page 68).
All sorts of biological information is packed into the brief Pied-billed Grebe species description in your bird guide — can your students tease it out? How big is this bird? (13.5 inches long.) What’s its scientific name? (Podilymbus podiceps.) Will you be able to find this species where you live? At what times of year and in what habitat? (Study the range map and range description carefully to answer those questions, and see the book’s back flap for a map key.)
The average person who sees a grebe from a distance would probably mistake it for a duck, but grebes tend to ride a bit lower in the water than ducks, they don’t have flat duck-like bills, and very importantly they don’t have webbed feet like all the ducks, geese and swans — instead they have feet with flap-like lobes that function like webbing but are anatomically different. (That’s not something you can usually see in the field, however.) The grebes are all divers, whereas only some ducks dive for their food.
One of the fun facts about grebes is that their downy young (grebelings?) ride around on their parents’ backs.
You can do little ten-minute lessons like this with any of the species in your bird guide that catch your interest. If you’re out in the West, you might want to learn about the Western Grebe (page 70), or if you’re down in Florida take a look at the only North American member of our other bird family this week, the American Flamingo (also page 70).
In all these Friday Bird Families posts, our aim is not to present a specific set of facts to memorize. We hope instead to provide examples and starting points that you and your students can branch away from in many different directions. We hope also to show how you can help your students develop the kind of careful skills in observation and interpretation that they will need 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: knowing 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 appreciate 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. 🦅
❡ Nature notes: This is one of our regular Friday Bird Families posts. Why not print your own copy of our River Houses Calendar of American Birds and follow along with us. You can also add your name to our free weekly mailing list (riverhouses.org/newsletter) to get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year. 🐦 🦅 🦉 🦆 🦃 🐔