❡ Note: The Great Backyard Bird Count begins today and runs all weekend (14–17 February)! It’s an ideal homeschool science and nature activity. Are you participating? Here’s how: riverhouses.org/2020-gbbc.
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 bird family is the Woodpeckers (pages 306–318).
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 is the bird guide’s introduction to this week’s group, written in the customary telegraphic style:
“WOODPECKERS AND ALLIES — Family Picidae. Strong claws, short legs, and stiff tail feathers enable woodpeckers to climb tree trunks. Sharp bill is used to chisel out insect food and nest holes and to drum a territorial signal. Species: 217 World, 28 N.A. [North America]“
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 Woodpeckers, for example. How many species? (217 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (28 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Sharp bills, stiff tails, forage on tree trunks, 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, why not investigate the friendly little Downy Woodpecker (page 314), a familiar species found across almost all of North America.
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 Downy Woodpecker? (Only 6¾ inches long, our smallest North American woodpecker.) What is its scientific name? (Picoides pubescens, or Dryobates pubescens in the eBird database.) 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.)
Downy Woodpeckers are readily attracted to suet feeders — you might be able to bring one or two right into your backyard. The males have a red patch on the back of the head that is absent in the females. Black, white, and red are the most common colors in almost all woodpecker species.
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. As a second species this week, why not take a look at the Northern Flicker (page 316), the state bird of Alabama (where it’s commonly called the Yellowhammer). Flickers nest in tree cavities and forage on tree trunks, like other woodpeckers, but they are also quite fond of ants and can often be seen feeding on the ground.
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. 🌎
❡ State birds: One species covered this week is a United States state bird: the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), also called the Yellowhammer, the state bird of Alabama as noted above. 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅