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 (three different families) are the Gnatcatchers (pages 396–397), the Dippers (pages 398–399), and the Kinglets (pages 398–399).
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:
GNATCATCHERS — Family Polioptilidae. A New World family of small, active birds with long tails, which are usually cocked. Gnatcatchers are mostly shades of blue, white, and gray. All of our gnatcatcher species are polytypic [that is, they exhibit considerable geographical variation; they have “many types” or subspecies within each species]. Species: 15 World, 4 N.A. [North America]“
DIPPERS — Family Cinclidae. Aquatic birds that wade and even swim underwater in clear, rushing mountain streams to feed. Species: 5 World, 1 N.A.“
KINGLETS — Family Regulidae. Small, active birds that often hover to feed. Species: 6 World, 2 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 Kinglets, for example. How many species? (6 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (2 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Small, active, sometimes hover momentarily to feed, 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 Kinglet family, why not investigate both of the North American species: the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (page 398).
All sorts of biological information is packed into the brief species descriptions in your bird guide — can your students tease it out? How big are these two similar species? (Only 4–4¼ inches long.) What are their scientific names? (Regulus satrapa and Regulus calendula.) Will you be able to find these species where you live? At what times of year and in what habitat? (Study the range maps and range descriptions 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 songs or calls do these species make? How can you distinguish them from similar species? (The text and illustrations should answer all these questions.)
Kinglets are very tiny birds — among the smallest in North America. Their colored crowns are often not visible (and only male Ruby-crowns have a ruby crown). Both species are found across the United States, and they can be easily told apart if you get a good view: the Golden-crowned has an eye-line and the Ruby-crowned has an eye-ring.
For the Gnatcatcher family, why not look at the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (page 396), the only widespread Gnatcatcher in the United States. It’s also a very tiny species, and much of its length is in its tail.
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. In our third family this week, for example, take a look at the American Dipper (page 398), a remarkable bird of the Rocky Mountains that often feeds underwater — the only small songbird to do so.
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, 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. 🌎
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅