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 Swifts (pages 88–91) and the Hummingbirds (pages 92–105).
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 these families 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:
“SWIFTS — Family Apodidae. These fast-flying birds spend the day aloft. Long wings bend closer to the body than on similar swallows. Species: 100 World, 9 N.A. [North America]“
“HUMMINGBIRDS — Family Trochilidae. These birds hover at flowers to sip nectar with needlelike bills. Adult males distinctive; others often identified to species by calls and subtle plumage and structural differences. Males’ iridescent throat feathers (gorget) look black in poor light. Species: 340 World, 24 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 Hummingbirds, for example. How many species? (340 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (24 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) If only 24 of 340 are in North America, where are the rest? (In Central and South America, world hummingbird headquarters!) What are their distinctive features? (Tiny nectar-feeders; needlelike bills; males often have iridescent throats; and so on.) (And “gorget” is certainly a wonderful word — 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 Hummingbird family, why not investigate the Rufous Hummingbird if you’re in the West (page 102), or the Ruby-throated Hummingbird if you’re in the East (page 96).
All sorts of biological information is packed into the brief species descriptions in your bird guide — can your students tease it out? For example, how big is the Rufous Hummingbird? (Only 3.5 inches long — the hummingbirds as a group are the smallest birds in the world.) What is its scientific name? (Selasphorus rufus.) 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.)
For the Swift family, why not look at either the White-throated Swift (page 88), common in the West, or the Chimney Swift (also page 88), common in the East.
The Swifts are masters of the air, and the group includes some of the fastest birds in the world. They are all feeders on “aerial plankton” — flying and floating insects that they catch in flight. Some species are known to reach exceptional altitudes — as high as 10,000 feet — and most of our North American temperate-zone species are highly migratory.
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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅