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Birding with Children

Giving parenting advice, I realize, can be a great way to make enemies. Just ask any mother-in-law. Better yet, just ask the recipient of any such advice: Ask any daughter-in-law. For sure, the dispensers of parenting advice—from Amy Shua to Focus on the Family to mothers-in-law everywhere—are generally hated.

Same thing, I have found, with the purveyors of birding advice. Try telling a non-lister that keeping lists is a great way to learn avian status and distribution; or explain to a chaser that you’d rather spend time at your local patch than make the eight-hour drive for a state first. Or try telling any sort of birder that he or she might have blown an ID…

01 San Luis ValleyAnd now I’m going to offer my views on both birding and parenting. I wonder if I’ll have any friends at all when this is done.
Right: On the trail in Colorado’s San Luis Valley; we’ve just seen several hundred American alligators (it’s complicated…) and a rare Mexican Duck.

To cut to the chase, I have one and only one item of advice for birding parents.

First, a brief digression.

 

Consider the following scenario. You’re in idle conversation with a friend—the sort of casual chitchat that happens dozens of times every day. It’s a conversation that, ordinarily, would be forgotten the next morning. Then your friend says something that hits you like a ton of bricks. Oh, it’s not intended as such. Indeed, your friend has already forgotten it a moment or two later. But it’s received and processed in such a manner as to be life-changing.

Come to think of it, I posted quite recently to The ABA Blog about precisely this matter. I wrote about how a birding companion, Chris Wood, casually remarked to me, “Listen to the Green-winged Teal.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t intend for that comment to alter the way I go birding. In fact, I suspect Chris had forgotten within minutes that he’d even uttered the remark. No matter, it changed my life.

02 SeabirdsThe same thing happened, a while back, in the course of conversation with Virginia Maynard, well known to many ABA members for her great work through the years with ABA bird-finding guides, Winging It, and other publications. Virginia’s kids were teenagers at the time, and my first child was on the way. We’d gotten onto the topic of birding and children, and Virginia said something that’s stuck with me ever since. I suspect Virginia had forgotten the conversation within hours. But I’ll always remember what she told me.
Left: Watching for seabirds off Monterey, California.

 



“S
tart ’em young.”

03 SibleyThat’s it? That’s all? That’s all she said? And that’s the entirety of my advice to birders with children?
Right: pondering geographic variation in the “white-cheeked goose” complex.

Yes, that’s it. That’s all there is to it. But there’s just one thing. We need to define “young.” You see, Virginia wasn’t talking about high school, or junior high, or even kindergarten.

That’s way too late.

 

My daughter and I spent a good part of her first day of life at the hospital window. We saw a Golden Eagle fly by, and we listened to coyotes warbling. The next few weeks, we explored the canyons, marshes, and mesas near our home in Boulder County, Colorado. We took our first out-of-state birding trip when my daughter was three months old; with Rick Wright, we birded around Tucson, Arizona, finding such regional specialties as Abert’s Towhee and Gila Woodpecker—plus a locally uncommon Swamp Sparrow. You get the picture.

04 High Creek FenMy son got an even earlier start. He and I had wandered out onto a hospital balcony within two hours of his birth. (Long story, but it involved an impending blizzard, a scarcity of doctors and nurses, and a bit of a “misunderstanding” about restricted areas in the hospital.) It was nearly midnight, so my son and I tried for Great Horned Owl. A few days later, he and I and his big sister got Eastern Screech-Owl for the Boulder Christmas Bird Count. The bird was a “save”—the only one recorded for the count.
Above: Returning from High Creek Fen, in Colorado’s high country.

 

Let me clear about something. I’m talking about serious birding, “real” birding, hardcore birding.

05 Cell PhoneA few years ago, when my kids were toddlers, we were birding in a blinding spring snowstorm at a local reservoir. We found a Ruff. My daughter knew what to do. She had me stay with the bird, and she raced back to the car for my cell phone.
Right: In this photo, she’s barely one year old. Today’s kids are born knowing how to use technology in the interest of furthering the cause of birding.

When my son was seven months old, he co-discovered with me the mid-summer nocturnal molt-migration of arizonae Chipping Sparrows. The discovery wouldn’t have happened without him. You see, I would have slept through those hot summer nights if it weren’t for my son’s nocturnal stirrings. But he stirred, I woke up, we went birding together in the middle of the night, and the rest is history.

My kids are a bit older now, and their ambitions are accordingly grander. The other day, my daughter learned that I’ll be camping and birding later this month in the remote canyonlands of the Colorado–New Mexico border; she’ll be there too, I’ve just been informed. Meanwhile, my son is angling for a birding trip to India.

What’s next?

 

06 ListIn a nutshell, I don’t know. I’m typing this from the sidelines at my son’s soccer game. After the game, my daughter (also playing soccer right now) and son are meeting up for a visit at a computer store in Boulder.


I don’t know if my kids will continue as birders. They’re increasingly interested in Taylor Swift and the diabolical union of Star Wars and Legos. (They’re also interested in, and knowledgeable about, number theory and The Great Fugue; my wife and I still exert some influence over them…) A few years from now, when they’re teenagers, my kids may have as little interest in birding as I have in shopping, television, politics, and cooking.
Left: Working up the day’s checklist.

That’s fine. If that happens, I’m fine with it. Such an outcome would mean, in some sense, that I’d get my life—or, at least my birding life—back to normal. I’d be back to birding the way I did it in grade school, college, grad school, and early adulthood.

07 TurkeyAnd if that happens, here’s the big question: Will I be able to sustain the turbo-charged pace of birding from my earliest years as a parent? Let’s not beat around the bush: I got more intensely into birding—way more into birding—when my daughter was born. And I cranked it up a few notches further with the birth of my son. Will I be able to keep it up? Or will I go back to the comparatively subdued birding tempo from my teens and twenties? I wonder.
Right: A close encounter on a backcountry road.

 

Here comes the preachy part. (Cf. Amy Shua, Focus on the Family, mothers-in-law everywhere.) I’ve come to realize that are two prevalent courses of action for birders with young children. Course of action #1: Just clock out for 10 years; simply stop birding while the kids are young. Course of action #2: Keep on birding while the kids are young, but do it on your own time.

08 MuseumAll I can say is: What a pity. Even: What a waste. What could be more wholesome for youngsters—grade-schoolers and preschoolers, toddlers and infants, even newborns—than going birding? Mind you, it’s not the birding per se that’s wholesome. Rather, it’s the experience of beholding, interacting with, and beginning to understand the whole wide world. Young children who go birding get to see blue whales and dawn redwoods, snowstorms in the Rockies and thunderstorms in the Sonoran Desert, rattlesnakes on the prairie and sunrise at Montauk Point.
Above: A visit to the Department of Zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

But never mind them. What about me? I’ll say it again: Since becoming a parent, I’ve done more birding, seen better birds, and simply enjoyed birding more than ever before.

And remember, the kids aren’t even teenagers yet.

Folks, don’t wait for the kids to be “old enough”—whatever that means. Just do it. Just strap ’em in, buckle ’em up, and go. Go for it.

 

09 Police blotterI started out by saying it’s perhaps not the smartest thing to proffer advice on birding, parenting, or especially birding and parenting. Well, don’t blame me!—this was all Virginia Maynard’s idea. And a few other folks: Betsy Blakeslee; Michael and Andrea Banks; and, nearly 30 years ago, Bill Fink. If you’re one of the aforementioned persons, you’re doubtless scratching your head right now. Regardless, you said something—in passing, and casually so—that stuck with me. You made a difference. You played an important role in ushering in the greatest years of my life.
Right: Good Times! Birding with children is a great way of getting your name in the police blotter in small towns all across America. (Check out the incident at 6:48 a.m.)

 

 

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Doug

    Bingo! I couldn’t agree more, even it was a tad difficult to accept that my son’s birding skills surpassed mine by about age 8!

  • Greg Swick

    I hear you, Doug! I was a generic outdoor enthusiast when my son was born. But I am a birder today because he found the birds to be the most fascinating of all living things, and I necessarily followed him because he needed a vehicle to get him out into the field at a very early age!

  • Ted Floyd

    Doug, I had a startling, and humbling, experience during the (very) early morning hours of July 30th, 2007. My son, who was 7 months old at the time, and I were outside listening to an impressive early-season flight of nocturnal migrant Chipping Sparrows. (The “fall” migration of Chipping Sparrows is extremely early in Colorado.)

    When I heard the sparrows’ little flight calls in the night sky, my son (whom I was holding) would register obvious acknowledgment of the sound. Just a Clever Hans Effect (which google), you say?

    Well, check this out: He was getting on the sounds before I was. After 15 minutes, I could tell that he was hearing incoming sparrows a few seconds before I was; he would first get on the fainter, more distant call notes, then I would hear the calls as the birds passed straight overhead.

    Check out what I’m saying: The dude couldn’t walk yet; the dude couldn’t talk yet; but he was detecting the nocturnal flight calls of Chipping Sparrows and accurately conveying that information before I was.

    Amazing.

  • Alyssa

    Thank you so much for this post! This is a dilemma I’ve been having with myself for about 10 and a half months now. My husband and I finally took out 10.5 month old birding last weekend. It was totally fine and he ended up falling asleep but we could tell he enjoyed it. I will wait until he’s older to go on bird walks with others, but having a baby out in the field actually made the experience better. We’re going to keep on birding with him!

  • Ted Floyd

    Ah. “I will wait until he’s older to go on bird walks with others.”

    Now there’s a touchy subject.

    Here’s one person’s take on it: http://tinyurl.com/d8ptwed

  • Alyssa

    I figured that would be a touchy subject. I’d like to say I’ll bring him anyway and who cares what people think, but I can’t. I don’t want a babbling kid to be the reason some person misses their life Kirtland’s warbler… Thanks for that link though- I need to go on that guy’s bird walks!

  • I recommend talking to the others before assuming that they’d mind a child. Not all situations are equal where bringing children is concerned. I lead several walks a year where even young children are welcome to come along. Obviously, a child who is crying or yelling at the top of his lungs is going to be a problem, but small children just babbling aren’t a problem on those walks. No one is likely to be missing their life Kirtland’s Warbler or anything else particularly remarkable on those walks.

  • Thank you, Ted. My family thought I was crazy trying to point out the Sharp-shinned Hawk to my daughter from the hospital window on her first morning. Ayla was only a month old for her first timberdoodling adventure. Now at 15 months, we spent Saturday afternoon listening to the warbler show, adding Cerulean Warbler to the yard list. She can track the robins and blue jays flying across the yard and points up to the spot where the Carolina Wren is singing. I had thought about putting my birding on hold, but you’ve pointed out that this is the best time to take daughter out even more.

  • I did a lot of “green birding” when my son was young: biking, rowing, hiking… He loved the physical activity and being outdoors with mom—and learned about birds along the way. I just had to be careful not to dwell too long looking with binoculars when he was a toddler or he’d be off out of sight on the trail! (Safety whistle recommended!) I also noticed that kids love the collection game of counts, whether it’s a CBC or a big day or year.

  • Like you Ted, I have to fight Angry Birds and Star Wars just to get my kids out of the suburbs and into some woods. This weekend we are going on an excursion to Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivera to see the migrating shore-birds. I sold this trip by telling my son (7) he might get to see a falcon. My daughter (5) I sold by telling her she could play in the mud.

    I would love to bird with my kids for the rest of my life, but my life is not their life, and in a modern economy our children leave the nest and find their own patches of woods. Often these paths are seperate. But perhaps…

    Sigh and ah well, I can not live with my hopes in the future while ignoring the good living now.

  • Liz Deluna Gordon

    I am proud my son self identifies at 21 as a birder, even if he could care less about going birding. When he saw the Big Year movie he was less than plussed that “They got us wrong Mom”. I expect since he could identify Chlorophonias at age three it might come back to him later in life. For now it is good enough he knows what is flying by when he is out with this buddies.

    Good job, Ted. You are a great Dad.

  • Doug

    Very much the same for me. Although I was by no means a birder when he was born, I had science knowledge, wheels, and could carry his scope. He dragged me out as often as possible (kicking and screaming, of course). When he fledges in the fall I’ll keep birding, but might also finally get those projects neglected over the years in favor of birding with him!

  • Doug

    Great story! I’ve often wondered if positive feedback might be involved when young children are birding with adults. With keen eyesight, sharp memory, and their ability to hear a slightly different frequency spectrum, they can make tangible contributions to any group outing. That must be empowering, at least until they reach an age where peer approval becomes their predominate motivator.

  • Bill Stewart

    Having five children ranging from 16 to 30, my kids have known their Dad as a birder their entire lives. Early on, I did drag them on numerous forays into the wilds with hopes that they would find their spark bird, ask for a pair of binoculars for Christmas, find my field guides under their pillows, ask when was the next time they could visit Bombay Hook NWR, but none of those true-blue birder signs ever surfaced. Coming to the realization that I may always be the only birder in this household, I had two choices: 1) succumb to their total disinterest in avian pursuits and leave them behind or 2) employ the birding parent osmosis theory. I chose #2. Plied with promises of Krispy Kreme glazed donuts, some assortment of my kids would hop into the car and head out for “an adventure”. That adventure would usually land sticky fingers and faces in some of my favorite birding haunts, somewhat unbeknownst to them ‘we’ were birding! Spending two or four hours amongst the sights and sounds that accompanied our adventure while they were off discovering whatever hit their fancy, avian knowledge was unconsciously seeping into their knowledge bank. With numerous adventures tucked away, the frequency has certainly diminished due to their busy schedules, but the joy of hearing an unsolicited comment pointing out a red-tailed hawk along the roadside or their question of ‘what kind of bird was that?!!’ brings this Dad some contentment in knowing that those Krispy Kreme donuts did their job……

  • Rob Fowler

    Great article, Ted. My son is going to be 3 in 8 days and I’ve taken him birding from the beginning. He really enjoys going outside and I always tell him that we’re “going on an adventure” instead of just saying we’re going birding (though he’s figured out that that usually means looking at birds will be part of it for me at least!) Much of the time I veil the birding into a more “interesting-to-a-2-year-old-type-activity.” Last week I told him we were going to go throw rocks in the river (to get my year White-throated Swifts) and then visit our friend Paul at his farm (to try for a Gray Fly. he reported the day before) and then were going to the fish hatchery to feed the fish (and get my year Western Wood-Pewee). We had a great day morning and we really enjoy our time together outdoors like that. A couple of weeks ago we chased Humboldt Counties first Smith’s Longspur and he had a great time hanging out with all the birders that were present looking at that gorgeous alternate-plumaged male! He’s a real social kid and quite the ham! Anyways, I think this is a great article and really appreciate what you wrote it. At the same time we don’t want to pressure our kids too much to be into birding like we are but more use it as a vehicle to expose them to the natural world. Just casually take them out and make it an “adventure” and point out the birds while on that adventure and I think more often than not some of those things you point out will stick. My son already knows a bunch of species and he’s not even 3 yet! It’s great to be a dad and take my kid birding…um, I mean “on adventures”!

  • Ted Floyd

    Re: “Self-identifies as a birder.” Good stuff, and that raises a point I’ve been thinking about for a little while. As we all know, there are studies out there that show that something like 475 million Americans are birders. Okay, I’m being a bit glib, but I think many of y’all know where I’m coming from.

    Here’s an idea. Why not estimate the number of birders by trying to figure out how many people self-identify as birders??

    I don’t self-identify as a butterflier, even though I notice butterflies while I’m outside, even though I own a few (okay, a lot of) butterfly books, and even though I every once in a while will bother to catch or watch a butterfly so as to put a name to it. Conversely, maybe there’s somebody out there who spends much of her time indoors, but for whom the 4th of July Butterfly Count is a huge annual highlight; and that person self-identifies as a butterflier–even though she spends less time noticing and perhaps thinking about butterflies than I do.

    To me, “birder” or “butterflier” is akin to “atheist” or “Christian,” to “conservative” or “animal-rights activist,” to “lister” or “non-lister,” to “pacifist” or “hiker.” If you say you are, then you are. It’s not for me (or anybody else) to judge.

    So to all the how-many-birders-are-there? researchers out there: Why not just ask folks, “Are you a birder?”

    My guess: Maybe 1 in 100 Americans would say Yes.

  • Great story, Rob. I have a 3 year old too and I take him out as often as I can. We’ve done a fair bit of rock and log flipping this spring and have found several snakes, lizards, salamanders and countless bugs. He knows a few birds, and can identify a handful by voice (those silly pneumonics finally come in handy!), but we’re mostly looking for herps since birds can be difficult to follow and hard for him to find.

    Which is fine by me. My own interest in nature as a kid started with herps and bugs and eventually turned into birding when I realized there were hundreds of them and only a couple dozen kinds of snakes in my region. Perhaps it will happen that way with my son too, but I’d be pleased if he ends up with an appreciation for being outside and discovering things.

  • Good stuff. With twins on the way – I need these tips for integrating family and birding life! My dad wasn’t a birder as such, although he did have a bird book, and happily toted my brother and myself all over in search of birds. God bless him for encouraging a now 30+ year long interest/lifestyle.

  • Ted Floyd

    Should you bring young children on organized bird walks? The matter was discussed a while back on BirdChat. Here:

    http://tinyurl.com/ccr2zce

    Commentators include Laura Erickson, Alvaro Jaramillo, Jeff Bouton, Katrina Knight, and, surprise of surprises, Yours Truly. And a variety of other folks.

  • Ted Floyd

    Teen birder Lorenzo Rohani has just come out with A Kid’s Guide to Birding. Get details here: http://kidsbirding.com/book.html

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