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 (four different families) are the Sylviid Warblers (pages 398–399), the Leaf Warblers (pages 400–403), the Grasshopper-Warblers (pages 402–403), and the Old World Flycatchers and Chats (pages 404–407). Although this may seem like a lot of birds, it’s actually a bit of a cheat, because only one or perhaps two species in these groups are really North American; the others are all birds of Europe and Asia that only occasionally arrive on this continent, mainly in western Alaska.
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:
SYLVIID WARBLERS — Family Sylviidae. This large, almost strictly Old World family comprises 14 genera, including one New World species, the Wrentit, and one vagrant to N.A. (Lesser Whitethroat, p. 559). Many are neatly patterned, and many more are rather colorful. Species: 62 World, 2 N.A. [North America]
LEAF WARBLERS — Family Phylloscopidae. This large Old World family of small, mostly greenish birds includes the Phylloscopus and the more colorful Seicerus genera. Many are difficult to identify. Species: 77 World, 8 N.A.
GRASSHOPPER-WARBLERS — Family Locustellidae. Old World family of medium to large size, mostly skulking birds. Species: 57 World, 2 N.A.
OLD WORLD FLYCATCHERS and CHATS — Family Muscicapidae. Short-legged birds that perch upright and obtain insects primarily through flycatching. May flick wings or tail. Species of genus Ficedula nest in cavities; genus Muscicapa build exposed nests. Not related to New World tyrant flycatchers. Species: 271 World, 14 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 Sylviid Warblers, for example. How many species? (62 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Only one species in North America regularly, with a second species accidental; the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (An Old World family with only one species resident in North America; many species are colorful, although our one species is not, 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 Sylviid Warbler family, why not investigate the Wrentit (page 398), a bird of the scrublands of the west coast.
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 Wrentit? (6½ inches long, including a long tail.) What is its scientific name? (Chamaea fasciata.) 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 light-eyed, long-tailed Wrentit is the only member of the Sylviid Warbler family that is resident in the United States. It inhabits brushland and chaparral along much of the west coast and is non-migratory and generally inconspicuous, more often heard than seen.
For a second species this week, why not take a look at the Northern Wheatear, the only member of the Old World Flycatcher family that is regular in North America – with “North America” in this case meaning the high arctic.
Wheatears are a diverse genus of birds (Oenanthe) found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, but the Northern Wheatear is the only species in the group that visits even the edges our continent. They are open-country insect eaters, and the birds that breed in northern Canada in the summer actually migrate back down over Europe and into Africa each winter.
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 species in the notoriously difficult Leaf Warbler family, for example, why not take a look at the Arctic Warbler (page 400), a regular visitor to Alaska from Asia; and so on with as many species as you wish.
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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅