Beginning backyard bird watching: Location, location, location – Part 1

Use the science of wildlife management and inquiry-based learning to help youth develop an interest in the outdoors.

How often do you take your kids on a hike only for them to be disappointed because they didn’t see any wildlife? Using backyard bird feeders as a Michigan State University Extension 4-H project to introduce youth to bird watching will help children develop curiosity about the variety of birds visiting feeders, how to identify birds and bird behavior. This is the first article in a series on bird watching, that will introduce activities for youth. Activities will use the science of wildlife management and inquiry-based learning to generate interest in the outdoors and help youth get started exploring the wonders of wildlife.

This will also help youth learn to spot and identify birds and other wildlife that they may have previously overlooked. A basic bird feeder filled with generic “bird seed” can attract a surprisingly large number of birds. However, if you observe this feeder for a few days you will notice that the birds are throwing out most of the seed in search of their favorite, which is often the black-oil sunflower seed. Before you run out and fill up a feeder full of sunflower seeds, hang it in front of your living room window and tell your kids to watch it, there are some things you and the children need to consider.

Have the kids work in pairs to sketch an aerial view of the house and surrounding area, then propose the following questions. (Go to “MSU Extension 4-H science comes alive through questions and inquiry” for more information on inquiry- based learning).

Where do you think we should put our feeder and why? As the kids throw out ideas, guide their brainstorming to help them select a good location by asking additional leading questions such as:

  • From what location(s) will you most frequently watch the birds (living room, kitchen, porch, garden, etc.)? The feeder needs to be somewhere that you can easily observe it without having to move around a lot. Although directly outside of your big picture window seems like a great place for you to watch the birds, it is not necessarily in the best interest of the birds. They will likely fly into the window by accident and get injured or killed. Look for a place far enough away from the window that collisions with windows will be reduced but close enough that you can still easily observe the birds. Keeping a pair of binoculars nearby will come in handy.
  • Can you think like a songbird? What do you need to survive? What are things that threaten your safety? The birds will be excited to have the feeder available and will use it just about anywhere you put it. However, most wildlife prefers to have their food source close to cover in the event that a predator, like your house cat or a hawk, shows up. Placing the feeder close enough to trees or shrubs into which the birds can quickly escape will increase their time spent on or near the feeder where you can watch them. Keep in mind that those shrubs can also serve as a place for your cat to hide and ambush the birds. The site you choose needs to be a compromise between ease of viewing for you and safe cover for the birds.
  • Do all songbirds need open water or any water at all? Though water is not necessary to attract birds to your feeder, many species will use it if it is available for drinking and bathing. Water can also attract insects which many bird species eat. Providing water will create another opportunity for the kids to observe additional bird behaviors.
  • How are you going to refill the feeder? If the location you have selected is above your head or hangs out over the side of a porch, consider a pulley system or other method to help you safely retrieve the feeder.
  • Can birds get sick? Consider where the waste feed and bird droppings will fall. Cleaning your feeder, water source and the area around and underneath them once or twice a month is important for the health of the birds and people. Feed that gets damp from rain or humidity can mold or grow bacteria that may cause the birds and even people to get sick. Since many birds that will come to your feeder are migratory, they could carry diseases to your feeder or pick up a disease and carry it to another location or flock.

Walking around the yard to investigate various sites while discussing the above questions will help the kids see from the bird’s perspective. Give the teams time to look around and put the information together to decide on a location for their feeder. Then have each team present their sketch and ideas to the group. This simple activity is the start to developing skills for observation, critical thinking, decision making, working with others and public speaking.

Watch for “Backyard bird watching for beginners: Part 2 – Feed and feeders” to learn about selection of feeders, feed and water sources.

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