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 melodious Thrushes (pages 408–417).
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:
THRUSHES — Family Turdidae. Eloquent songsters of many habitats that feed mainly on insects and fruit. Some species, especially in the genus Catharus, are difficult to identify. Species: 181 World, 26 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 Thrush family, for example. How many species? (181 worldwide — a large group.) Are there any near us? (26 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Good singers, found in many habitats, eat fruit and insects, 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. The Thrush family contains some of America’s best-loved birds — why not begin with the American Robin (page 414), a familiar species found all across the continent. There may be one outside your window today.
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 American Robin? (10 inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Turdus migratorius.) 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.)
Robins are familiar insect-eaters and worm-eaters on suburban lawns all across the United States, but they also eat berries and fruits, especially in winter. They build nests of grass-covered mud — a distinctive feature — and their bright eggs even give us a special color-name: “Robin’s-egg blue.” Like many members of the Thrush family they are persistent singers that produce a liquid, melodious song all through the day.
For a second species in the Thrush family, take a look at the beautiful Mountain Bluebird, one of the three species of bluebirds (genus Sialia) in North America.
And if you want to learn about one of the world’s great singers, look up the Wood Thrush (page 412), a summer forest bird in much of the eastern United States.
The persistent, complex, liquid song of the Wood Thrush echoing through shady woods is always a delight to the ear.
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. If you’re in the east rather than the west, why not take a look at the Eastern Bluebird (page 408) rather than the Mountain Bluebird; if you’re up for a challenge, see if you can learn how to distinguish a Hermit Thrush from a Swainson’s Thrush (both page 410); 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 you made 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. 🌎
❡ State birds: Five species in the popular Thrush family are United States state birds: the Eastern Bluebird (Missouri and New York), the Mountain Bluebird (Idaho and Nevada), the Hermit Thrush (Vermont), the Wood Thrush (District of Columbia), and the American Robin (Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin). 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅