How and why I feed birds with little kids. Expect lasting effects built upon fleeting moments of fun. ————
It’s mid-May and Spring has already started to look like Summer. There is no lack of natural foodstuff for birds on the ground, in the air, on leaves and trees. But twice a week, I take a bag of black oil sunflower to my son’s preschool. It might seem odd that I keep shelling out the big bucks for top-quality black-oil sunflower seed despite the seasonal plenty at hand (at beak). But then again, Spring migration only just peaked, and Nashville has visitors who have come a long, long way, travelers who need to replenish body fat, establish territory, court, mate, build nests, raise young, evade predators. Our year-round residents are busy doing the same things without having flown so far, but they all need energy, lots of it, and I don’t mind easing the tough, short life of a bird just a bit.
“Feed the birds and what have you got? Fat birds!” fussed Mr. Banks in Disney’s Mary Poppins, and I’ve heard similar opinions in real life, especially about feeding birds in warm weather. However, I take as my authority the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whose FeederWatch program recommends feeders year-round. The birds get free food for the taking: a minimum of effort for maximum benefit. Meanwhile, what have I got? A minimum of effort for maximum benefit too, because I’m not really the one who feeds the birds. Preschoolers do. They are the real reason that I lug that bag to school. Four bird feeders within sight of a wall of classroom windows—two seed tubes and two hummingbird feeders—give kids a hands-on reference point to the natural world. Just by maintaining the feeders, they are involved in the process of creating an ecologically-friendly habitat and a love of nature. They do all the work, and while they work, we talk, we look, we listen.
Sometimes, the reward is immediate, even too much so. One day, just as we hoisted a tube feeder up to the dogwood branch and bent back down to tidy, two tufted titmice swooped down and grabbed seeds. I was pretty excited, but my two little helpers, faced with scolding, dive-bombing birds and an adult who suddenly dropped to the ground, were freaked. They’d never been this close to a bird before, never seen tufted titmice, and didn’t know what was going on. I brought them down to my lap and whispered an encouraging run-on sentence about how neat this was and how the birds were so happy with the new food and they probably have a nest nearby and aren’t we so lucky and look at the little crest on the top of their heads like a person with her hair poking up and so on and so on. The kids sprang back up, ready to play, fear forgotten and take-home message remembered: “the birds liked the food we gave them.”
Hopefully, they ask questions, dart off on tangents, like the time Veronica found an empty walnut shell under the little oak tree. “Look, a coconut!” she squealed, and we examined the shell to feel the texture, consider its size, look at the teeth marks, which led to a quick discussion about tree fruits and animal signs. The most important thing to Veronica was that she get to slip that shell into her pocket, and the most important thing to me was that she thought it was a treasure worth keeping.
My lesson plan teaches itself. Do you know the classic beak adaptation activity, “Fill the Bill,” from Ranger Rick? At one of my first volunteer assignments, the naturalists at Warner Park Nature Center set me up as Fill the Bill facilitator during a bird banding day. It’s good stuff: teachers provide household tools that mimic the action of different kinds of bird bills, and students have to surmise which tool best mimics which bird. A nutcracker would be a seed-cracking cardinal. A tweezer would be a ground-insect-eating woodcock. A long, thin brush a hummingbird’s beak and tongue, and so on. My preschoolers are not ready for this, having had such little exposure to birds, but I can help set a foundation for that kind of detective work by simply providing two types of feeders: seed and nectar. Because the kids fill and watch the feeders, they see what types of birds are attracted. They see how a hummingbird’s beak fits neatly into the tiny hole in the plastic ports, and they see how a cardinal cracks a sunflower seed to release the kernel within. They see how hard it would be for the cardinal to try to drink from the nectar feeder, and how hard it would be for a hummingbird to try to crack shells. This is the kind of super simple, super important observation that helps encourage curiosity, wonder, inquiry and affection.
The preschoolers are also in charge of making the sugar water. Talking about it is one thing, but making it is another. When they scoop white sugar into a measuring cup, taste a tiny lick, add boiling water, watch the sugar dissolve, let it cool, pour it into bottles (16oz. soda bottles are a manageable size for young children), and then decant it into a feeder, they know what their birds will be eating. We talk about sugar water being not healthy for us, but healthy for the birds, and why the birds need so much energy in the first place. We flap our wings as fast as we can, counting how many times per second, and compare this number to a hummingbird. They learn that what we give them is the second best thing to eat, and we can try to give them the very best thing when we plant humming-bird-friendly, native flowers. I can point to the fake flower on the hummingbird feeder and explain that this is a just a plastic picture of what the hummingbirds really, really want and need.
Which leads to the garden… I’d love to help the children plant a bed with native honeysuckle, trumpet vine, salvias and other trumpet flowers. Unfortunately, the feeders are positioned in a berm of sterile mulch and non-native shrubs and grasses, and the whole area is regularly treated with herbicides like Roundup. So, our best bet was to start with a big pot of vines and annuals. Even a 14″ pot of flowers is better than nothing, and it might just be the extra splash of color that invites more birds down to investigate. What would take me about five minutes ended up taking an hour, but we got the pot planted, made a native cane teepee for a vine, and created a mini-garden. What took so long were all the details: how to remove a plant from a pot, what to do with the roots, how deep to plant, how close, what kind of soil will keep the worms healthy (organic), and how to water without splashing the plants right back out of the pot. Happily, this is the kind of detail we have time for in preschool.
See what we really get when we feed the birds? Not fat birds, but busy hands and hungry minds. The children seem to love the work for its own sake, and are always ready for more.
To sum up: this “lesson plan” requires little time, but can pay back oodles of benefits. You need only 15 minutes per session, a bag of black oil sunflower, a seed feeder, and a hummingbird feeder. Oh, and a few good picture books, of course (see below).
TIPS (FOR THE DETAIL-ORIENTED) AND RESOURCES:
Picture books about birds: I use these to introduce the hummingbird—which most kids haven’t actually seen yet— and to supplement the “unit” in general. (“Unit” is in quotes because feeding the birds isn’t just a discrete chunk o’ curriculum, it is a way of life.) The links take you to an Amazon page so you can see the cover and check inside, but do start at your library. I am picky as hell about picture books, so assume that these are stellar:
•A Hummingbird’s Life (part of the Nature Upclose series), by John Himmelman. A must. The entire life cycle of a hummingbird, presented in just a few words per page.
•The Hungry Hummingbird, April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Gay W. Holland. Presented as a brief story about a particular ruby-throated hummingbird who searches for food until he finds the right kind. Factual afterword for grownups.
•It’s a Hummingbird’s Life, by Irene Kelly. Charming illustrations, busy text, good for older children who can sit still for all the wavy lines of facts. Paraphrase the highlights and show the pictures to younger kids.
•Birds, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Oh, what a lovely book for young children! Please check to see if your library has it right now.
•Bird Talk: What Birds are Saying and Why, by Lita Judge. GORGEOUS illustrations. Kids can learn that birds communicate with sound and action.
•Bird Talk, by Ann Jonas. Great paper-cut illustrations. This one’s more about the phonetic vocalizations birds make, such as how a Northern Cardinal can say “What-Chew, What-Chew, Birdy, Birdy, Birdy.” A fun intro to bird calls and songs.
•About Birds: a Guide for Children, by Cathryn Sill and John Sill. An old-school feel, but still valuable. Concise, realistic illustrations, minimal text, informative. Cathryn and John Sill have a whole series of must-have introductory picture books about nature, including About Hummingbirds.
•FIELD GUIDES for birds, designed for children of different ages. If you want to learn the names and habits of species, nothing beats a book made for a kid. Here’s a page of Amazon results from keyword search terms birds+guide+children.
•Websites: I prefer books, but a great site for bird ID (and more) is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds.” You can search for birds by shape or name. Plus, lots of info about attracting birds to your yard. This is my go-to site.
Make feeders: Kid-created bird feeders are everywhere online. Here are a few plans from the National Bird-Feeding Society. And here is a page from The World of Hummingbirds on making hummingbird feeders from a Gatorade bottle. Oh, look at this easy design for a hummer feeder from the blog Almost Unschooled.
And then there is the classic pinecone / nut butter bird feeder I wrote about at this post: Tu B’Shevat Birdfeeder.
Native Plant lists: Much of the fancy plant material at local nurseries and hardware stores are pretty but utterly sterile. This means lots of color, but no nectar. Your best bet, on many levels, is to stick with native species, which are harder to find. Find species appropriate for your state at the NPIN: Native Plant Database. Many wildlife sites list native plants to specific areas of the U.S. Try the National Wildlife Federation’s backyard habitat site.
Jewish: my son’s school is a secular Montessori preschool, so I don’t bring up the Jewish angle at all. The obvious connections to Judaism are the mitzvot (commandments) Tza’ar ba’aley Chayim (taking care of animals) and Tikkun Olam (which can be interpreted as “repair of the world”). Just to know that to take care of animals can be thought of as “Jewish,” is a big lesson right there.
Volunteering: P.S. I never would have made the effort to start this regime were it not for the Tennessee Naturalist Program. In order to get and retain certification, I am obliged to log 40 volunteer hours and complete a course of studies per year. If your local parks system or Department of Environment or some similar agency sponsors a program for volunteer naturalists, check it out. It might change your life and a wee bit of the world, as well.
“. . . whispered an encouraging run-on sentence about how neat this was and how the birds were so happy with the new food . . . ”
Amazing save to the day, Joanna! And wonderful reminder of how learning about the bigger world starts with activities like this.
Thanks, Ellen, and thanks for reading. Yep, the best place to start is our own backyards.
Wonderful article, Joanna! Glad to welcome a new naturalist. as a former preschool teacher, can’t wait to see what you come up with next for the group!
Thank you, Margaret! We are gearing up for the next big thing: to certify the school grounds as Wildlife Habitat via the National Wildlife Federation. Imagine a bunch of 4 year-olds with clipboards, conducting a Habitat Hunt. Will keep you posted.