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 Sandpipers (pages 124–161). Usually we cover one or two different families each week, but we’re spreading the Sandpipers out over two weeks because there are so many of them: about 94 species around the world and 66 in North America.
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 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:
“SANDPIPERS — Family Scolopacidae. The majority of these shorebirds have three distinct plumages. Most begin molting to winter plumage as they near or reach their winter grounds. Species: 94 World, 66 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 Sandpipers, for example. How many species? (94 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (66 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Shorebirds, three distinct plumages, and so on.) (That brief description is rather weak, I think — not one of the guide’s best. As you can see from the illustrations, the Sandpipers are generally long-legged, compact-bodied birds, often with long necks and usually with long bills that they use to probe in sand, mud, and soil. They are strong flyers and most are long-distance migrants.)
In larger families such as the Sandpipers, your bird guide will often have separate headings for notable subgroups within the family — for example, the “Peeps” (page 134):
“PEEPS. These are seven species of small Calidris sandpipers that are difficult to identify. Collectively known as stints by Old World English speakers, they are divided into four Old World and three New World species. Keys to identification include learning overall structure and feather topography, behavior, and the distribution patterns of each. It is essential to first learn our three common species before claiming a rare species.“
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 a spectacular bird: the Long-billed Curlew (page 126).
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 Long-billed Curlew? (23 inches long — a big bird, not a tiny shorebird running along the beach.) What is its scientific name? (Numenius americanus.) 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. This species is generally widespread in western North America.) 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.)
Nine species of Curlews occur around the world, and along with a species found in Asia, the Long-billed Curlew of North America has the longest bill of any shorebird, up to eight inches in length in some individuals. Like a number of other shorebirds, and unlike most birds in general, Curlews exhibit “reverse dimorphism” — the females are generally a bit larger and have longer bills than the males.
The Sandpipers are a large family that we’re going to spread over two weeks. To start to get a sense of the diversity of the group, why not look at a second representative species this week — for example, the Ruddy Turnstone (page 130), a boldly patterned bird that favors rocky shorelines.
As their name suggests, Turnstones often feed by flipping over small rocks to search for worms and other invertebrates. The breeding-plumage males have a distinctive black-and-white harlequin pattern. In the non-breeding season the outlines of the pattern remain, but it becomes mottled and brown like the typical camouflage pattern found on many Sandpipers.
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. There are so many wonderful names among the Sandpipers, all inviting you to enrich your ornithological vocabulary: Whimbrels, Godwits, Knots, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Dowitchers, Snipes, and more.
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 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅