For live links, click to: riverhouses.org/2019-tropicbirds
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 Tropicbirds (pages 214–215), the Loons (pages 216–219), and the Albatrosses (pages 220–223).
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, the kind of book they will encounter in many different fields of study. Here are the bird guide’s introductions to this week’s groups, written in the customary telegraphic style:
“TROPICBIRDS — Family Phaethontidae. Long central tail feathers identify adults. They are usually seen far out to sea, where they are solitary and mostly silent. Here, each of these glossy white species is often first spotted right over the highest point of the boat; they circle a few times and then fly off. They swim buoyantly with their tails raised. Species: 3 World, 3 N.A. [North America]“
“LOONS — Family Gaviidae. In all species, juvenal-like plumage held for over a year. Species: 5 World, 5 N.A.“
“ALBATROSSES — Family Diomedeidae. Gliding on extremely long, narrow wings, these largest of seabirds spend most of their lives at sea, alighting on the water whenever becalmed or when feeding on squid, fish, and refuse. Pelagic; most species nest in colonies on oceanic islands; pairs mate for life. A number of species, especially those in the Southern Hemisphere, are threatened by long-line fishing. Species: 15 World, 10 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 Loons, for example. How many species? (5 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (All 5 species occur in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (The guide’s description is a bit weak this time, except to say that they take more than one year to acquire adult plumage.)
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 Loon family, why not investigate a bird that occurs across all of North America: the Common Loon (page 218).
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 Common Loon? (32 inches long — a big bird.) What is its scientific name? (Gavia immer.) 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 can you distinguish it from similar species? (The text and illustrations should answer all these questions.)
Loons are aquatic birds, inhabiting both fresh and salt water. They are larger than ducks, with sharp, pointed bills, and they ride very low in the water — more like a submarine than a ship. They are great divers and capture all their food under water. And they’re famous for carrying their downy chicks around on their backs.
It’s only by a stretch that this week’s other two families, the Tropicbirds and Albatrosses, can be considered North American birds — they’re really oceanic birds that are occasionally seen off the North American coast. As an example from the Albatross family, why not look at the Laysan Albatross (page 220), which, while it isn’t really a North American bird, is indeed a United States bird, since it is named for Laysan Island in Hawaii, one of its main nesting localities. (Your River Houses atlas will show you the location of Laysan Island.)
You can do little ten-minute lessons of this kind with any of the species in your bird guide that catch your interest. Pick a species that is near you, or one that looks striking, or one that has a strange name, and explore. For example, in this week’s third family, the Tropicbirds, take a look at the White-tailed Tropicbird (page 214), a beautiful, solitary wanderer of tropical seas. You’ll notice that the name of the tropicbird genus is Phaethon. Do your students know who Phaethon was? Send them to your recommended family dictionary (riverhouses.org/books) to find out!
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 reading, observation, and interpretation that they will need in all their future academic work.
What ornithological observations and naturalistical notes will you be making in your homeschool this Orion Term? 😊
❡ 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 define and explain 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. 🌎
❡ State birds: One species covered this week is a United States state bird: the Common Loon (Gavia immer), the state bird of Minnesota. 🇺🇸
❡ Nature notes: This is one of our regular Friday Bird Families posts for homeschool naturalists. 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅