“[What is the] extinction of a condor, to a child who has never seen a wren?” Robert Michael Pyle.
Pyle is one of my all-time favorite naturalist authors and this quote speaks volumes, not just about birds, but about all of nature. How and why will anyone in the future care about the health and survival of the natural world, if they are never exposed to it as a child?
There is a great deal of research now that documents just how little time kids spend playing outdoors today. The figures are shocking, and for me, frightening. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv is a nationally known book that has raised enough alarm that Congress in 2015 introduced a legislation called the No Child Left Inside Act. This Act would fund training for teachers in outdoors and environmental education programs and hopefully, lead us to become a nation of environmentally literate citizens. But we cannot afford to sit around and wait for the government to take action.
What we need is for every parent and grandparent to become the agents of change and start by introducing their children and grandchildren to the easiest form of wildlife watching – bird watching. It is the fastest growing outdoor activity in the U.S. And like any new skill (or language), the earlier you learn it, the easier it is.
I introduced my son Jon to birds and bird watching when he was six or seven, about the same time that I took a University Ornithology class and became a bird watcher myself. I bought Jon a little Golden Guide to Birds of North America. It was simple book with colored illustrations. He could handle basic reading, but what he most enjoyed was looking at the pictures late into the night in his bed, under the covers. He memorized many of the birds, including the Golden pheasant (not a native bird) and one day, to my surprise, when we were in the store at the Science Museum, he pointed out a stuffed specimen to me. I didn’t even know what it was. I took him with me on some field trips and encouraged him as much as possible, but as he grew to be a teenager, his interest in birds waned, not surprisingly. I held out hope that I had planted the seed and it would one day reemerge.
Today Jon is in his 40’s and lives in Montana. He and his wife and daughter spend lots of weekends exploring the mountain region. He often reports with enthusiasm, on the variety of birds he’s seen, some that I may never see myself. And better yet, he is sharing his knowledge and excitement with seven year old Teagan.
I began introducing our twin grandsons to the world of birds when they were just two. When I would visit, I’d bring along a deck of flashcards with pictures of North American birds and in the morning, they would climb into bed with me and we’d look at the pictures and I’d tell them the bird’s names. As they got older, we branched into games of putting the birds into separate piles based on color. Soon they were able to identify four or five. Sometimes when we would be outside and see a bird, they’d say, “That bird’s in your cards grandma”.
When their younger sister was only a year and a half old and we are outside together I would stop whenever I hear birds calling and say in a loud whisper “Listen. Do you hear the birdies singing?” She would look very serious as she listened. I also made the sign for “bird” to reinforce what I was talking about. It was part of our fun together, not a sit down, boring classroom lecture. Now Annalise is in 5th grade and is currently working on a school assignment on Blue Jays.
Most Americans can identify between 1 and 20 species of birds. You don’t have to be an expert to share this pastime with children, you just have to show an interest and they will follow. Rachel Carson said it best. “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, she needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with her the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
By Kate Crowly