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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 Shearwaters and Petrels (pages 224–239), and the Storm-Petrels (pages 240–245)].
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, your objective 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:
“SHEARWATERS · PETRELS — Family Procellariidae. Pelagic seabirds, most species rarely seen from shore; bills have nostril tubes. Fly with rapid wingbeats, stiff-winged glides. Most species generally silent at sea. Species: 86 World, 32 N.A. [North America]“
“STORM-PETRELS — Family Hydrobatidae. These small seabirds hover close to the water, pattering or hopping across the waves to pluck up small fish and plankton. Some species follow ships. Identification is often difficult. Flight behavior helps to distinguish the various species, but can vary deceptively depending on weather, especially wind speed. Silent away from the nesting colonies. Species: 25 World, 15 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 Storm-Petrels, for example. How many species? (25 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (15 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail — and they will show you that all the species in the group are oceanic, so if you are inland, none of them will actually be near you.) What are their distinctive features? (Small, oceanic, seem to hop along the surface of the water, 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 Storm-Petrel family, why not investigate what may be one of the most abundant birds in the world: the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel (page 240).
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 Wilson’s Storm-Petrel? (only 7¼ inches long with a 16-inch wingspan.) What is its scientific name? (Oceanites oceanicus.) 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.)
Unless you’ve spent time at sea you probably have never seen a storm-petrel, but some species in the group may nevertheless be among the most abundant birds in the world because they are found all across the world’s oceans. The Wilson’s Storm-Petrel is common off the Atlantic coast of North America in our northern hemisphere summer — that’s “winter” as far as the birds are concerned, because they breed in circumpolar Antarctic waters during the Antarctic summer (our winter). All the storm-petrels come to land only to breed, and they nest in large colonies on remote islands, scratching out small burrows in the sand or wriggling into crevices among the rocks.
Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and other similar species, have been familiar to sailors at sea from time immemorial, as they often follow along behind ships in large numbers. They are sometimes colloquially called “Mother Carey’s Chickens” — a name your students may encounter in literature, as in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:
Perth [the blacksmith], withdrawing his iron from the fire, began hammering it upon the anvil — the red mass sending off the sparks in thick hovering flights, some of which flew close to Ahab.
“Are these thy Mother Carey’s chickens, Perth? They are always flying in thy wake; birds of good omen, too, but not to all; — look here, they burn; but thou — thou liv’st among them without a scorch.”
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 other family, the Shearwaters and Petrels, take a look at the Sooty Shearwater (page 234), another pelagic species that is common off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America. The shearwaters are larger seabirds (18 inches in the case of the Sooty Shearwater), and they glide on stiff wings much more often than the fluttering storm-petrels.
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 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. 🌎
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅