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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 Tyrant Flycatchers (pages 334–355) and the Becards and Tityras (pages 354–355).
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:
“TYRANT FLYCATCHERS — Family Tyrannidae. A typical flycatcher darts out from a fixed perch to catch insects. Most species have a large head, bristly ‘whiskers,’ and a broad-based, flat bill. Species: 420 World, 46 N.A. [North America]“
“BECARDS · TITYRAS — Family Tityridae. Mostly medium-size and compact with stubby bill; at least partly frugivorous. Includes becards and the tiny S.A. [South American] purpletufts. Species: 29 World, 3 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 Tyrant Flycatchers, for example. How many species? (420 worldwide, a large group.) Are there any near us? (46 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Hunt from perch, large head, bristles, 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 Tyrant Flycatcher family, why not investigate two geographical counterparts: the Eastern Kingbird (page 352) and the Western Kingbird (page 350).
All sorts of biological information is packed into the brief species descriptions in your bird guide — can your students tease it out? How big are the Eastern and Western Kingbirds? (8½ and 8¾ inches long, almost exactly the same size.) What are their scientific names? (Tyrannus tyrannus and Tyrannus verticalis, two species in the same genus, Tyrannus.) Will you be able to find these species where you live? At what times of year and in what habitat? (Study the range maps and range descriptions 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 do these species make? How can you distinguish them from each other and from similar species? (The text and illustrations should answer all these questions.)
The Tyrant Flycatchers are a large group with many similar species that are often difficult to identify, even for experts. Most species in the group select an exposed perch and sally out to catch insects in flight. They tend not to be colorful birds, but many have a small bright patch on the crown that is usually visible only at close range. A few species have long and dramatic tails, such as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (page 352), the state bird of Oklahoma.
One of the most challenging groups of North American birds to identify are the Tyrant Flycatchers of the genus Empidonax. Take a look at pages 336–343 in your bird guide to see how very similar they are to each other. The Empidonax flycatchers are an example of what biologists call sibling species — species that are so much alike that we have difficulty telling them apart. The birds themselves don’t have trouble, of course: the voices of all these species are different, and they have slightly different habitat preferences and probably other minor behavioral differences as well — things they notice, but that we don’t easily recognize. In the field, however, if the bird is not singing, many an observer is forced to put down “Empidonax sp.” (Empidonax, species unknown) in the daily record.
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. In our second family this week, for example, why not take a look at the Rose-throated Becard (page 354), a Central American species that just barely makes it north into the United States near our southwestern border.
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 will you be making in your homeschool this Leo 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, as noted above: the dramatic Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), the state bird of Oklahoma. 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅