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 (two different families) are the Old World Parrots (pages 326–327) and the African and New World Parrots (pages 326–333).
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:
OLD WORLD PARROTS — Family Psittaculidae. A widespread Old World family. Three species established [in North America]. Species: 184 World, 3 N.A.
AFRICAN AND NEW WORLD PARROTS — Family Psittacidae. Two genera and 20 species found in Africa; rest in the New World. In U.S., mostly from CA, TX, and FL, where most are descendants of escaped cage birds. Species: 167 World, 17 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 African and New World Parrots, for example. How many species? (167 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (17 species in North America, but most of these are descendants of escaped cage birds or are found on the extreme southern U.S. border.) What are their distinctive features? (Generally green and red, heavy hooked bills, long 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 African and New World Parrot family, why not investigate the Nanday Parakeet (page 328), and example of a South American species that has escaped from captivity in Florida and California and become locally naturalized.
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 Nanday Parakeet? (13¼ inches long.) What is its scientific name? (Aratinga nenday.) 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. If you don’t happen to live in one of the local areas where this species has become naturalized, you’ll probably be out of luck.) 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.)
Parrots are found around the world but most species occur in the tropics and the southern hemisphere. There are today no native parrot species in the United States, with the possible exception of some (such as the Green Parakeet, page 330) that may occasionally stray a short distance north across the U.S. border with Mexico. The species shown in your bird guide are almost all exotic (non-native) species that have escaped from captivity and become naturalized in areas such as Miami and Los Angeles.
Sadly, there was once a beautiful native parrot in the United States, the Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), but it became extinct in 1918. You can still find it in your bird guide, however, on page 557 in the special appendix on extinct and accidental species. The Carolina Parakeet was common across much of the southeast, and while it was hunted — both for its plumage and as a fruit-orchard pest — its rapid extinction is still something of a mystery.
You can do little ten-minute lessons of this kind with any of the species in your bird guide that catch your interest. Pick a species that is near you, or one that looks striking, or one that has a strange name, and explore. For a second species this week, why not take a look at the Monk Parakeet (page 328), a more cold-tolerant species that has been able to survive for a number of years as far north as the New York City region and may eventually increase and become naturalized.
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 did you make in your homeschool this Orion 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 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. 🐦
❡ 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. 🌎
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅