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 school-year’s tour began at the beginning of this month with an introduction to your bird guide.)
This week’s group of three families has a wonderful ten-dollar name: the “gallinaceous” birds, encompassing the New World Quail (bird guide pages 54–57); the Curassows and Guans (pages 58–59); and the Partridges, Grouse, Turkeys, and Old World Quail (pages 58–67). Gallus is the Latin word for chicken, so the gallinaceous birds are the chicken-like birds, with generally plump bodies, small heads, short beaks, and rounded wings.
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:
NEW WORLD QUAIL — Family Odontophoridae. New World Quail are their own family. All have chunky bodies and crests or head plumes. In N.A. [North America], most live in the West. Species: 33 World, 6 N.A.
CURASSOWS · GUANS — Family Cracidae. These tropical-forest arboreal birds have short, rounded wings and long tails. Generally secretive but highly vocal. One species of this family is found in the United States. Species: 54 World, 1 N.A.
PARTRIDGES · GROUSE · TURKEYS · OLD WORLD QUAIL — Family Phasianidae. Ground dwellers with feathered nostrils; short, strong bills; and short, rounded wings. Flight is brief but strong. Males perform elaborate courting displays. In some species, courting birds gather in communal grounds, known as leks. Species: 178 World, 18 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 Currasow family, for example. How many species? (54 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Only 1 species in North America, and the species map will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Forest dwellers, secretive, arboreal, long tailed, and so on.)
Many of the gallinaceous birds have played important roles in human culture for thousands of years. All the varieties of domestic chicken are descended from the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a member of the Phasianidae that is native to Asia. Different species of pheasants, quail, grouse, and partridges are raised or hunted for food and ornament all around the world.
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 state bird of Pennsylvania: the Ruffed Grouse (page 62).
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 Ruffed Grouse? (17 inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Bonasa umbellus.) 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.)
The drumming courtship call of the male Ruffed Grouse is one of the characteristic sounds of northern North American forests.
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. If you live in Alaska why not pick out the Willow Ptarmigan (the state bird), or if you’re in California, the California Quail (the state bird there). The domestic turkeys we eat are all descendants of the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) (page 60), the largest gallinaceous bird in North America, and the species that would have become the U.S. national bird had Ben Franklin had his way. 🦃
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 will you be 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 using the free eBird service 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 (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: Six members of this week’s bird families are United States state birds: the Ruffed Grouse (Pennsylvania), California Quail (California), Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska), and Ring-necked Pheasant (South Dakota), and the Rhode Island Red Hen (Rhode Island) and Delaware Blue Hen (Delaware). The last two don’t appear in your bird guide, however, because it includes only wild, not domestic, species; try the eBird entry for the Red Junglefowl of Asia to learn more about the wild ancestor of these domestic chicken varieties. 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅