For live links, click to: riverhouses.org/2019-limpkins
Every Friday we invite you and your homeschool students to learn about a different group of North American birds in your recommended 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 throughout the year.
This week’s birds (three different families) are the Limpkins (pages 104–105), the Rails, Gallinules, and Coots (pages 106–111), and the Cranes (pages 112–113).
If you’re teaching younger children, the way to use these posts is just to treat your bird guide as a picture book and spend a few minutes each week looking at all the interesting birds they may see one day. With that, your little lesson is done.
If you have older students, one of your objectives should be to help them become fluent with a technical reference book that’s packed with dense information. Here are the guide’s introductions to this week’s groups, written in the customary telegraphic style:
“LIMPKINS — Family Aramidae. Large, long-necked wading bird, named for its limping gait. Species: 1 World, 1 N.A. [North America]“
“RAILS · GALLINULES · COOTS — Family Rallidae. These marsh birds have short tails and short, rounded wings. Most species are local and secretive. Some, especially the rails, are identified chiefly by call and habitat. Species: 141 World, 17 N.A.“
“CRANES — Family Gruidae. Tall birds with long necks and legs. Tertials droop over the rump in a “bustle,” which helps distinguish cranes from herons. Cranes fly with their necks fully extended and circle in thermals like raptors. Courtship includes a frenzied, leaping dance. Species: 15 World, 3 N.A.“
When you’re training your young naturalists, teach them to ask and answer from their bird guide some of the first questions any naturalist would ask about a new group — about the Rails, Gallinules, and Coots, for example. How many species? (141 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (17 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Marsh birds, short tails and wings, secretive, and so on.)
Pick a representative species or two 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 the Rail family, why not investigate the good old American Coot (page 110).
All sorts of biological information is packed into the brief species descriptions in your bird guide — can your students tease it out? How big is the American Coot? (15.5 inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Fulica americana.) 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.) Do the males and females look alike? The adults and juveniles? What song or call does this species make? How do you tell it apart from similar species? (The text and illustrations should answer all these questions.)
If you aren’t familiar with Coots, you’ll probably mistake them for ducks at a distance. But they’re anatomically quite different: rather dumpy in shape, with lobed (rather than webbed) feet, and with sharp beaks that are not at all like a duck’s flat bill. They do swim and feed in lakes and ponds like ducks, and often mix with them, but their all-black plumage and white beaks give them away. Since they occur across almost all of North America, they may be happily swimming in a pond near you and you just never noticed.
For the Crane family, why not look at a famous American bird, the Whooping Crane (page 112), a notable success story in wildlife conservation.
Once widespread across central North America, the entire population of Whooping Cranes had declined to just 23 individual birds in the 1940s. Fortunately, Whooping Cranes proved amenable to captive breeding, and through careful management their population has today been brought back up over 500 — far better than just a few decades ago, but still dangerously low for the survival of the species. (Imagine if there were only 500 human beings on the entire earth.)
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 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 reading, 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. 🐦
❡ Vade mecum: The front matter in your bird guide (riverhouses.org/books) (pages 6–13) explains a little bit about basic bird biology and about some of the technical terminology used throughout the book — why not have your students study it as a special project. Have them note particularly the diagrams showing the parts of a bird (pages 10–11) so they’ll be able to tell primaries from secondaries and flanks from lores. 🦉
❡ Words for birds: You may not think of your homeschool dictionary (riverhouses.org/books) as a nature reference, but a comprehensive dictionary will also 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 be taught to look for in the dictionary is the information on word origins: knowing the roots of scientific terms makes it much easier to understand them 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. 🌎
❡ Nature notes: This is one of our regular Friday Bird Families posts for homeschool naturalists. Why not print a 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. 🐦 🦅 🦉 🦆 🦃