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 Emberizid Sparrows (pages 486–517). Usually we cover one or two different families each week, but we’re spreading the Emberizids out over two weeks because there are so many of them: about 168 around the world and 53 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:
EMBERIZIDS — Family Emberizidae. All have conical bills. This large family includes the towhees, sparrows, and Emberiza buntings. Species: 168 World, 53 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 Emberizids, for example. How many species? (168 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (53 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Conical bills, most are brown and striped, many have loud and distinctive songs, and so on.) (And “conical” is certainly a good intermediate vocabulary word — be sure to send someone to your homeschool dictionary to look it up as needed.) 🔎
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 Song Sparrow (page 506), one of the most familiar and widespread Emberizids in 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 Song Sparrow? (4¾–6¾ inches long, quite a large range.) What is its scientific name? (Melospiza melodia.) 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 Song Sparrow is a good bird to use to teach one of the most basic facts of natural history: virtually every species that occurs over a wide geographical area exhibits geographical variation. As you can see from illustrations in your bird guide and from the photos above, the Song Sparrows from the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska tend to be quite large and dark; those of the desert southwest tend to be much smaller and very pale; and those of the east tend to be intermediate in size with dark streaking on a light ground. These different geographical variants are called subspecies or geographical races, and they are often designated with a third component in the scientific name: Melospiza melodia is the Song Sparrow species as a whole; Melospiza melodia maxima is the large and dark Alaskan subspecies; Melospiza melodia fallax is the lighter southwestern subspecies; and Melospiza melodia melodia is the intermediate eastern subspecies.
For a second Emberizid species this week, take a look at the handsome White-crowned Sparrow (page 510), another widespread bird that is found all across North America.
Their boldly patterned heads are always a delight to see in the field, and they give us a behavioral clue as well: the fact that so many Emberizid species differ in their face and crown patterns tells you that when they interact among themselves they look each other right in the eye, just as we do.
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 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 Hercules 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: One species in this week’s bird family is a United States state bird: the handsome Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys), the state bird of Colorado. 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅