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 (six different families) are the Bulbuls (pages 422–423), the Starlings (pages 422–423), the Waxwings (pages 424–425), the Silky-Flycatchers (pages 424–425), the Olive Warblers (pages 426–427), and the Accentors (pages 426–427). That may seem like a lot, but only a few members of these families occur in North America.
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:
BULBULS — Family Pycnonotidae. Noisy, active Old World family of the tropics and subtropics. Species: 123 World, 1 N.A. [North America]
STARLINGS — Family Sturnidae. Widespread Old World family. Chunky and glossy birds; most species are gregarious and bold. Species: 117 World, 3 N.A.
WAXWINGS — Family Bombycillidae. Waxy tips on secondary feathers are often indistinct, and sometimes they are absent altogether. All waxwings have sleek crests and silky plumage, and both N.A. species have yellow-tipped tails. Where berries are ripening, waxwings come to feast in amiable, noisy flocks. Species: 3 World, 2 N.A.
SILKY-FLYCATCHERS — Family Ptilogonatidae. This New World tropical family of slender, crested birds is closely related to the waxwings. The family’s common name described their soft, sleek plumage and agility in catching insects on the wing. Species: 4 World, 2 N.A.
OLIVE WARBLERS — Family Peucedramidae. Recently placed in its own family because relationships are uncertain. Species: 1 World, 1 N.A.
ACCENTORS — Family Prunellidae. Small Eurasian family. One species strays into N.A. Species: 13 World, 1 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 Waxwing family, for example. How many species? (Only three worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Two species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Crested, waxy tips on secondaries, yellow-tipped tails, 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 Waxwing family, why not investigate the Cedar Waxwing (page 424), a widespread species found all across North America.
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 Cedar Waxwing? (7¼ inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Bombycilla cedrorum.) 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.)
Waxwings are beautiful birds with unusual lax plumage that gives them a very soft and smooth appearance, especially at close range. In the summer they hawk insects like flycatchers, but in the winter they are berry-feeders and will often gather by the dozens in a cherry or crab apple tree and strip the branches bare in a matter of minutes. Their call is a high buzzy trill and whistle that they often give in flight and while flocking, and they’re often heard before they are seen.
For a species in the Starling family this week, take a look at the European Starling (page 422), one of the most common and widespread birds in North America, but not a native: our “American” Starlings were introduced from Europe in the late 1800s and have since become naturalized across the entire continent. Bold, squeaky, and squawky, they are speckled in the winter but glossy purple-black in the summer (when they will happily invade the eaves of your house to nest).
The other families this week occur only around the margins of our continent. The Red-whiskered Bulbul (page 422) is an Asian species that has escaped from captivity and become naturalized in a few places in Florida; the handsome Phainopepla (page 424) and the Olive Warbler (page 426) are both Central American species that cross a short distance into the United States in the southwest; and the Siberian Accentor (page 426) is an Asian bird that sometimes occurs in western Alaska.
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.
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 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. 🌎
❡ Rivers in the sky: How many birds are migrating this week? You can find out from the BirdCast website, also sponsored by Cornell University, which offers daily bird migration forecasts in the spring and fall for the entire United States. 🦅
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅