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 (six different families) are the Storks (pages 246–247), the Frigatebirds (pages 246–247), the Boobies and Gannets (pages 248–251), the Cormorants (pages 252–255), the Darters (pages 256–257), and the Pelicans (pages 256–257), a diverse collection of large and mostly aquatic birds.
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:
STORKS — Family Ciconiidae. Large, long-legged birds that fly with slow beats of their long, broad wings, soaring and circling like hawks. Species: 19 World, 2 N.A. [North America]
FRIGATEBIRDS — Family Fregatidae. These large, dark seabirds have the longest wingspan, in proportion to their weight, of all birds. They spend much time soaring, often circling. Occasional wingflaps are slow. Wings angular, tails long and deeply forked, and bills long and hooked. Species: 5 World, 3 N.A.
BOOBIES · GANNETS — Family Sulidae. High-diving seabirds that plunge into water. Gregarious, nesting in colonies on small islands. The rest of the year, gannets roost at sea, boobies primarily on land. Mostly silent at sea. Species: 10 World, 6 N.A.
CORMORANTS — Family Phalacrocoracidae. Dark birds with set-back legs; long, hooked bill; and colorful bare facial skin and throat pouch. Dive from the surface for fish. May briefly soar; may swim partially submerged. Mostly silent, except around nesting colonies. Species: 31 World, 6 N.A.
DARTERS — Family Anhingidae. Long, slim neck helps to distinguish anhingas from cormorants. Anhingas often swim submerged to the neck. Sharply pointed bill is used to spear fish. Species: 4 World, 1 N.A.
PELICANS — Family Pelicanidae. These large, heavy waterbirds have massive bills and huge throat pouches used as dip nets to catch fish. In flight, pelicans hold their heads drawn back. Mostly silent away from breeding colonies. Species: 8 World, 2 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 Pelican family, for example. How many species? (8 worldwide.) Are there any near us? (Only 2 species in North America, and the individual maps will give us more detail.) What are their distinctive features? (There’s nothing quite like a pelican: large and heavy, giant bills with expandable throat pouches, fly with neck drawn in, 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 Pelican family, why not investigate the most widespread North American species in the group: the American White Pelican (page 256).
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 American White Pelican? (62 inches long with a 108-inch wingspan!) What is its scientific name? (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos.) 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.)
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. From the Cormorant family, for example, take a look at the Double-crested Cormorant (page 252), a large diving and fishing bird found all across North America.
Or from the oceanic Frigatebird family, why not investigate the magnificent Magnificent Frigatebird (page 246).
Frigatebird males are famous for their giant inflatable throat pouches, used to attract females on the nesting grounds.
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 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. 🦅
❡ 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. 🌎
❡ State birds: One species covered this week is a United States state bird: the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), the state bird of Louisiana. 🇺🇸
❡ 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! 😊