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 are the Blackbirds (pages 530–545), a group that includes a great variety of species, including the Grackles, Meadowlarks, Cowbirds, Orioles, and more.
If you’re teaching younger children, the way to use these weekly overviews is just to treat your bird guide as a picture book and spend a few minutes every Friday 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 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:
“BLACKBIRDS — Family Icteridae. Strong, direct flight and pointed bills mark this diverse group, which includes the meadowlarks, blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and orioles, among others. Species: 104 World, 25 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 Blackbird family, for example. How many species? (104 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (25 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Strong direct flight, conical bills, most species exhibit combinations of black, red, yellow, and orange, 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 Red-winged Blackbird (page 532), a common and familiar bird of marshes, ponds, lakes, and rivers all across 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 Red-winged Blackbird? (8¾ inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Agelaius phoeniceus.) 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.)
Red-winged Blackbirds can be found in most wetland habitats from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They are sexually dimorphic: the males are the ones that are black with red “shoulders” (technically, the secondary coverts), while the females are brown and striped, usually with just a hint of red. Red-wings are highly territorial in the breeding season and aggressively defend the patch of marsh that contains their nest, but in the non-breeding season they commonly travel in large flocks, often mixed together with other blackbird species.
For two more species in the Blackbird family this week, take a look at the Eastern Meadowlark and the Western Meadowlark (page 530), a pair of sibling species — species that are so similar we humans often have trouble telling them apart.
Meadowlarks, both Eastern and Western, are common birds of grasslands and farm fields. They like to perch on fence posts, tree stumps, and wires, and they sing a loud warbling whistle all through the day.
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 is near you, or that looks striking, or that has a strange name, and explore. For example, why not take a look at the Baltimore Oriole (page 544), a bird so popular they named a baseball team after it!
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 Hercules 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: This week’s family includes some popular state birds: the Baltimore Oriole (Maryland) and the Western Meadowlark (Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming). 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅