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 birds are (again) the Ducks, Geese, and Swans (pages 14–53). Usually we cover one or two families each week, but we’re spreading the ducks, geese, and swans over two weeks because there are so many of them: about 160 species around the world, and 66 in North America. Last week we investigated the geese and swans; this week we’ll turn to the ducks.
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 again is how your bird guide introduces this week’s birds:
DUCKS · GEESE · SWANS — Family Anatidae. Worldwide family. Web-footed, gregarious birds, ranging from small ducks to swans. Largely aquatic, but geese, swans, and some ‘puddle ducks’ also graze on land. Species: 160 World, 66 N.A. [North America].
In large families such as this one, your bird guide will also often have separate subheadings for notable subgroups within the family — for example, the “dabbling ducks” (page 26):
DABBLING DUCKS. Surface-feeding members of the genus Anas: the familiar ‘puddle ducks’ of freshwater shallows and, chiefly in winter, salt marshes. Dabblers feed by tipping, tail up, to reach aquatic plants, seeds, and snails. They require no running start to take off but spring directly into flight. Most species show a distinguishing swatch of bright color, the speculum, on the secondaries. Many are known to hybridize.
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 one of the most familiar of all ducks, a species found throughout the entire northern hemisphere: the Mallard (page 26).
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 Mallard? (23 inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Anas platyrhynchos.) What does it sound like? (Quack! But then you already knew that. 😊) 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? How can you distinguish it from similar species? (The text and illustrations should answer all these questions.)
From the illustrations you can see that the Mallard is sexually dimorphic (“two-formed”): in other words, the males and females are different in appearance, with the males having an iridescent green head, chestnut breast, and silvery-gray flanks. A little browsing will show you that most duck species are sexually dimorphic, whereas most geese and swans are sexually monomorphic (“one-formed”): the males and females are similar in appearance, and just by looking you can’t tell them apart.
One of the most beautiful hidden features of many dabbling ducks, as noted in the description above, is the speculum (Latin, “mirror”) — the swatch of iridescence on the secondary feathers, the inner wing feathers that attach to the bird’s forearm. The speculum is plainly visible when the bird is in flight, but it’s usually hidden at rest, unless the bird happens to stretch its wings a bit.
And of course Mallards have provided the soundtrack — accurately or not — for just about every duck that has ever appeared in film and television. 🔊
Browse through the many other duck species in your bird guide and take note of (and delight in) the many wonderful duck names that enrich the English language: Mallard, Gadwall, Merganser, Pochard, Eider, Teal, Canvasback, Scaup, Scoter, Smew, Pintail, Wigeon, and more. And if you want to explore a second species this week, why not take a look at the spectacular Harlequin Duck (page 40), an arctic-breeding sea duck that comes south along both North American coastlines in the 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 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 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: One member of this week’s bird family is a United States state bird: the Hawaiian Goose or Nene (Branta sandvicensis). Unfortunately, you won’t find the Hawaiian Goose in your North American bird guide, because Hawaii, while part of the United States, is not part of North America! But don’t despair: the Hawaiian Goose profile on the eBird website will help you learn all about it. 🇺🇸
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅