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 (two different families) are the Cuckoos, Roadrunners, and Anis (pages 80–83) and the Goatsuckers (pages 84–87).
If you’re teaching younger children, just treat your bird guide as a picture book and spend a few minutes looking at all the interesting birds in this family that 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 information, the kind of book they will encounter in many different fields of study. Here’s how your bird guide introduces this week’s birds:
“CUCKOOS · ROADRUNNERS · ANIS — Family Cuculidae. Of this large family, widespread in the Old World, only a few species are seen in N.A. [North America] Most are slender with long tails; two toes point forward, two back. Species: 142 World, 8 N.A.“
“GOATSUCKERS — Family Caprimulgidae. Wide mouth and rictal bristles help these night hunters snare flying insects. Most located and identified by distinctive calls. Species: 93 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 Cuckoo family, for example. How many species? (142 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Only 8 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Slender with long tails, unusual arrangement of the toes, and so on.) (And for the Goatsuckers, take note of the cool word “rictal” — be sure to send someone to your homeschool dictionary to look that one up.) 🔎
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 Cuckoo family, why not investigate one of the two widespread cuckoos in North America: the Yellow-billed Cuckoo (page 80).
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 Yellow-billed Cuckoo? (12 inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Coccyzus americanus.) 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.)
The classic “cuckoo” call that we know from literature, music, and cuckoo-clocks isn’t really made by our North American cuckoos. It’s the call of the Common Cuckoo of Eurasia, a species that is not really North American although it does appear in your bird guide (page 82) because it occasionally strays across the Bering Strait from Siberia into western Alaska.
This week’s other family, the Goatsuckers, contains birds that are more often heard than seen — they are largely nocturnal and all are masters of camouflage. The one widespread species in the group that is sometimes visible in the daytime is the Common Nighthawk (page 84), which feeds at night but regularly migrates by day.
Many birds in the Goatsucker family are named for their distinctive calls, which are repetitive and haunting as they echo through the forest at night. The Eastern Whip-poor-will (page 86) is one of the best-known members of this group in the eastern half of the United States; it has a western counterpart called the Common Poorwill (also page 86), which is smaller in size and gives a shorter call.
You can do little ten-minute lessons of this kind with any of the species in your bird guide that catch your interest. Pick one that lives near you, or that looks striking, or that has a strange name, and explore.
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 also hope 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 have you been making in your homeschool this Cygnus 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, it can be made solitary or social, 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. 🌎
❡ Beep beep: One species covered this week is a United States state bird: the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), the state bird of New Mexico. (Did you know Roadrunners are cuckoos? It’s true!) 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅