Every Friday we invite you and your homeschool students to learn about a different group of North American birds in your recommended bird guide. 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 brilliant Cardinals and their allies (pages 518–529), including the American Tanagers, Grosbeaks, and Buntings.
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:
CARDINALS AND ALLIES — Family Cardinalidae. In N.A. [North America], this diverse family now includes Piranga tanagers formerly with Thraupidae, the tanagers. Also included are various seedeaters including Northern Cardinal, certain grosbeaks, the Passerina and other buntings, and Dickcissel. Species: 48 World, 18 N.A. [This week’s description isn’t particularly descriptive; it’s primarily reporting on how this family has been reconfigured in recent years as a result of improved understanding of the evolutionary relationships of the birds involved.]
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 Cardinal family, for example. How many species? (48 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (18 in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (A diverse group, mainly seedeaters, many are brightly colored, 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 Northern Cardinal (page 522), one of the best-loved birds in the United States.
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 Northern Cardinal? (8¾ inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Cardinalis cardinalis.) 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.)
Northern Cardinals are among the most popular birds in the United States. They readily come to bird feeders in the winter and have a well-known fondness for sunflower seeds. Their loud, repetitive, whistling song brightens up both forest edges and suburban backyards across most of the eastern half of the country.
If you’re living in the West and miss out on having Cardinals in your neighborhood, don’t despair: the Cardinal family contains many spectacular species in your region as well. Take a look, for example, at the Western Tanager (page 520), a forest-dwelling member of the Piranga tanager group.
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 a third species this week, why not take a look at the spectacular Painted Bunting (page 526), a southern species so brightly patterned that it almost looks artificial.
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, 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. 🐦
❡ Enchiridion: The front matter in your bird guide (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 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 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 the most popular state bird in the United States, the Northern Cardinal (Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia). 🇺🇸
❡ 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 to get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅