Birding with Children
by Ted Floyd
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...
And 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.
The 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.
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.
My 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.
A 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.
In 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.
And 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.
All 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.
I 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.)