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 Herons and Bitterns (pages 258–265) and the Ibises and Spoonbills (pages 266–267).
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:
HERONS · BITTERNS — Family Ardeidae. Wading birds; most have long legs, neck, and bill for stalking food in shallow water. Graceful crests and plumes adorn some species in breeding season. Soft-part colors also brighten on most species, especially at onset of breeding season. This plumage is referred to as ‘high breeding.’ On some species, these colors can become more intense suddenly, only to fade a few minutes later. Species: 63 World, 20 N.A. [North America]
IBISES · SPOONBILLS — Family Threskiornithidae. Gregarious, heronlike birds that feed with long, specialized bills: slender and decurved in ibises, wide and spatulate in spoonbills. Species: 34 World, 4 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 Ibises and Spoonbills, for example. How many species? (34 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Only 4 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (Gregarious, long-legged and long-necked, specialized bills, and so on.) (And “gregarious,” “decurved,” and “spatulate” are certainly a wonderful words, aren’t they — be sure to send someone to your homeschool dictionary to look them up.) 🔎
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 Heron family, why not investigate one of biggest and most widespread herons in North America: the Great Blue Heron (page 258).
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 Great Blue Heron? (46 inches tall — nearly four feet — with a six-foot wingspan!) What is its scientific name? (Ardea herodias.) Will you be able to find this species where you live? (Probably, since it occurs across all of North America.) 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 Great Blue Heron is a magnificent bird, and one of the biggest birds the average person in the United States is ever likely to see. They are reasonably tolerant of humans and can be found on the banks of urban ponds and streams as well as in remoter areas. Like almost all herons, they generally feed by standing motionless in shallow water and darting their long necks out to grab unsuspecting fish, frogs, or invertebrates as they pass by. In flight, even at a distance, herons can easily be distinguished from other long-necked bird such as cranes because they fly with their necks pulled back rather than extended.
For the Ibis and Spoonbill family, why not look at one of the most spectacular North American birds, the Roseate Spoonbill (page 266).
Spoonbills are large heronlike birds with, as their name suggests, strange spoon-shaped (spatulate) bills. They’re mainly found in Central America but do occur up along the Gulf Coast and around into southern Florida. (Those of us in the northern tier are out of luck on this species.)
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. You also could look at, for example, one of the tiniest herons, the Least Bittern (page 258), only a foot long and very good at hiding deep in the marshes.
And if you want to hear one of the strangest bird songs in all of North America, take a listen to the Least Bittern’s larger cousin, the American Bittern: oonk-a-lunk!
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 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. 🦅
❡ Feed the birds: Setting up a bird feeder is one of the simplest and most educational activities you can do during the colder months — and at any other time of year too! 🐦
❡ 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. 🐦 🦉 🦆 🦃 🦅
❡ Support our work: If you enjoy the educational materials we distribute each week, please support our work and the noble cause of homeschooling by making a small donation as a Friend of the River Houses! Your support keeps us going and growing! 😊