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 (once again) the Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers (pages 180–213). Usually we cover one or two different families each week, but we’re spreading the Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers out over two weeks because there are so many of them: about 97 around the world and 50 in North America. Last week we looked at the gulls, and this week we’ll look at the terns and skimmers.
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:
GULLS · TERNS · SKIMMERS — Family Laridae. A large, diverse family with strong wings and powerful flight. Some species are largely pelagic; others frequent coastal waters or inland lakes and wetlands. Gulls take from a little over a year to over three years or more to reach adult plumage; immatures are often variable and hard to identify. In general, male gulls are larger than females. Species: 97 World, 50 N.A. [North America]
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 terns and skimmers, why not investigate the Common Tern (page 208).
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 Common Tern? (14½ inches long with a 30-inch wingspan.) What is its scientific name? (Sterna hirundo.) 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 tell it apart from similar species? (The text and illustrations should answer all these questions.)
Terns are graceful and elegant water birds, a bit like small and delicate gulls. They are generally black and white overall, with some species mostly black (like the beautiful Black Tern above) and others mostly white (like the Common Tern). Some tern species are purely oceanic (like the Sooty Terns and Noddy Terns on page 206 in your bird guide), while others inhabit both saltwater and freshwater habitats. Like most gulls, most terns nest colonially in large numbers. The Arctic Tern (page 208) is one of the world’s greatest long-distance migrants, nesting as far north as Greenland and the Canadian arctic and then traveling all the way to the opposite hemisphere to “summer” in the waters around Antarctica.
The skimmers — the genus Rynchops, with only one species in North America, the Black Skimmer (page 212) — are some of the strangest looking birds you’ll ever see. They are saltwater birds, visually similar to gulls and terns, but they are unmistakable in having a lower mandible that is much longer than the upper mandible.
Skimmers feed by flying along just inches above the water with that long lower-half of the bill slicing through the surface like a knife blade. When they feel it strike a fish — snap! A group of skimmers flying and feeding together is a beautiful sight.
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 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 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅
❡ Homeschool calendars: We have a whole collection of free, printable, educational homeschool calendars and planners available on our main River Houses calendar page. They will all help you create a light and easy structure for your homeschool year. Give them a try today! 🗓
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