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 (two different families) are the Grebes (pages 68–71) and the Flamingos (pages 70–71). The Grebes and Flamingos are both aquatic, but that’s about all they have in common. (And in case you’ve never encountered them before, the name “grebe” is pronounced greeb.)
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:
GREBES — Family Podicipedidae. A worldwide family of aquatic diving birds. Lobed toes make them strong swimmers. Grebes are infrequently seen on land or in flight. Species: 23 World, 7 N.A. [North America]
FLAMINGOS — Family Phoenicopteridae. Large waders with big, bent bills, used to strain food from the waters of shallow lakes and lagoons. Species: 6 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 Grebe family, for example. How many species? (23 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (7 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Aquatic diving birds with lobed, not webbed, feet, 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 Grebe family, why not investigate the Pied-billed Grebe (page 68), a rather cute aquatic bird 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 Pied-billed Grebe? (13½ inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Podilymbus podiceps.) 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 average person who sees a grebe from a distance would probably mistake it for a duck, but grebes tend to ride a bit lower in the water than most ducks, they don’t have flat duck-like bills, and very importantly they don’t have webbed feet like all the ducks, geese and swans — instead they have feet with flap-like lobes that function like webbing but are anatomically different. (That’s not something you can usually see in the field, however.) All the grebes are divers, whereas only some duck species dive for their food.
One of the fun facts about grebes is that their downy young (grebelings) ride around on their parents’ backs — we can call it grebe-schooling. 😊
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. If you’re out in the West, for example. you might want to learn about the Western Grebe (page 70), or if you’re down in Florida why not take a look at the only North American member of our other bird family this week, the American Flamingo (also page 70).
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 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 solitary or social, it can be as elementary or as advanced as you wish, 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 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅
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