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 are (once again) the Sandpipers (pages 124–161). Usually we cover one or two different families each week, but we’re spreading the Sandpipers out over two weeks because there are so many of them: about 94 species around the world and 66 in North America.
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 information, the kind of book they will encounter in many different fields of study. Here again is how your bird guide introduces this week’s birds:
“SANDPIPERS — Family Scolopacidae. The majority of these shorebirds have three distinct plumages. Most begin molting to winter plumage as they near or reach their winter grounds. Species: 94 World, 66 N.A. [North America]“
Although some members of the Sandpiper family are large or strikingly patterned, like the Curlews and Turnstones we looked at last week, many more are small, inconspicuous, and difficult to distinguish from one another. (Difficult for us, that is. The birds themselves have no trouble telling each other apart.)
The small species collectively known as “Peeps” (page 134) are not much more than six inches long, and it takes a fair bit of experience to identify them, especially in the fall when their plumage is more dull-colored. As examples this week, why not compare the Least Sandpiper and the Semipalmated Sandpiper, both common across much of North America, but notoriously difficult to identify.
Biologists call species like these “sibling species.” The birds themselves likely use calls, or behavior, or habitat preference to identify their conspecifics — or in the case of these two species, a small detail like the color of the legs. (Did you notice?)
While many of the smaller members of the Sandpiper family are difficult to identify, there are a few that are unmistakable, such as the breeding-plumage Spotted Sandpiper (page 148), a small freshwater bird that lives along streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds all across the continent — and almost certainly somewhere near you.
Even after their breeding-plumage spots disappear in the late summer, Spotted Sandpipers are still easy to identify by their distinctive behavior: they bob their tails up and down almost constantly as they walk.
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 made 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. 🌎
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅