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 Larks (pages 374–377) and the Swallows (pages 376–381).
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:
“LARKS — Family Alaudidae. Old World family represented by many species, especially from Africa. Horned Lark (known as Shore Lark in the Old World) is the only native species in the New World, although Eurasian Skylark strays to AK and is established as an introduced species on Vancouver Island, BC. Ground dwellers of open fields, larks are seed- and insect-eaters. They seldom alight on trees or bushes. On the ground, they walk rather than hop. Species: 93 World, 2 N.A. [North America]“
“SWALLOWS — Family Hirundinidae. Slender bodies with long, pointed wings resemble Swifts, but ‘wrist’ angle is sharper and farther from the body; flight is more fluid. Adept aerialists, swallows dart to catch flying insects. Flocks perch in long rows on branches and wires. Species: 84 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 Larks, for example. How many species? (93 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Really only on species in North America, with a second mainly Eurasian species that sometimes is found in Alaska.) What are their distinctive features? (Ground-dwellers, walk rather than hop, varied diet, 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 Lark family, why not investigate one of the most widespread birds in North America, the Horned Lark (page 374).
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 Horned Lark? (6¾–7¾ inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Eremophila alpestris.) 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.)
Horned Larks are open-country birds that favor fields and farmlands. They occur all across North America but are not necessarily common in all areas. In winter they often forage in large flocks. The “horns” of the Horned Lark (like those of the Great Horned Owl) are feather tufts that stick up on either side of the head. As the illustrations in the guide show, Horned Larks are unusually variable, with many different subspecies (geographical races) described from different parts of the continent.
The Horned Lark is really the only North American species in the Lark family, but since the Eurasian Skylark occasionally strays into western Alaska it’s included in your guide as well — and that’s good, because it gives us an excuse to play its flight-song. The Horned Lark is not especially melodious, but the Skylark has been featured in art and literature for centuries, and it’s easy to see (or hear) why.
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 Swallows, take a look at the friendly Barn Swallow (page 378), another widespread North American species, but one that is highly migratory and only present in the United States in spring, summer, and fall.
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 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. 🌎
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅