Bring on the birds

From our backyards, to the forest preserves, and even the lakefront, Chicagoans are lucky to be surrounded by a variety of beautiful and interesting birds. Armed with some basic information about attracting and feeding the local birds, you can turn your backyard into a bird-watching haven and your child into a budding naturalist.

Setting the scene

The first step in attracting birds to your yard is finding the right birdfeeder. Here is a simple project for making a birdfeeder from an empty milk carton.

Clean the empty container with a small amount of dish soap and water and dry completely. If the top has a plastic spout sticking up, push it in. If the top has an opening for pouring, staple it closed. Paint the entire container brown (don’t forget the bottom). Cut out matching two-inch openings on opposite sides of the container. Make a small hole and insert the wooden dowels under each opening to make perches for the birds to land on. Cover the container with craft glue and decorate with twigs and sticks. Punch a hole in the top of the container to hang the feeder. Fill the feeder only one-half full with bird seed to prevent rotting and help control the amount of visitors. Hang the feeder from a tree branch with a sturdy string. Refill as needed.

Feeding our feathered friends

Different types of bird seed attract different types of birds. A good choice for attracting a variety of birds is black oil sunflower seeds. Cardinals, blue jays, finches, nuthatches and chickadees will thank you for a feeder full of sunflower seeds. Another good choice is mixed seed from the pet or grocery store, which will attract mourning doves, sparrows, cardinals, nuthatches and grosbeaks (although avoid mixes with a high percentage of filler such as millet).

Did you know that you can make bird food from items you may have around the house? The sunflowers you purchased from the market to put on your kitchen table may have shriveled up, but the birds will think they are a tasty treat. Remove the stem and petals and hang the dried sunflower head on a tree branch with string or wire and the birds will help themselves to the seeds inside. Or try rolling a pinecone in peanut butter, covering it with mixed birdseed and hanging it from a tree branch for your feathered friends. Don’t forget to provide clean water for the birds, particularly in the warm summer months. Fill an aluminum pie tin with water and place it near your feeder. Replace the water often.

Bird watching

Now that you have created a welcoming environment for the birds, start observing who comes to feast at the feeder. Every beginning bird watcher needs two things: binoculars and a field guide. Invest in a child-size set of binoculars for older children, while younger bird watchers will be content to make their own"binoculars.”

Paint the toilet paper rolls and wooden beads the color of your choice. Let dry completely. Glue the wooden beads between the two rolls. Punch a hole at the outer edge of each roll. Attach cord, string or ribbon through the holes to make a strap. Encourage your child to take these homemade"binoculars” with her on bird-watching excursions.

The final step in your bird-watching preparations is choosing the appropriate field guide. Although it is not specifically designed for children, Birds of Illinois by Stan Tekiela is a good choice because the birds are categorized by color, making it easy for children to identify birds by looking through the pictures. Other good bird watching resources for children include Backyard Birds by Jonathan P. Latimer and Karen Stray Nolting and Teaching Children About Backyard Birds by Catherine Lazaroff.

With binoculars and field guide in hand, get out there with your child to see what birds you can find in your neighborhood. Who knows—you might learn a thing or two about birds yourself.

Supplies {bird watching}

Two empty toilet paper rolls (or a paper towel roll cut in half)Two wooden beads (about 1 inch in diameter)

Poster paint (in the color of your choice)

Paint brush

Craft glue


Cord, ribbon or string

Hole punch

Supplies {birdhouse}

An empty, half-gallon, cardboard container

Brown acrylic paint (Note: Poster paint does not work for this project. When using acrylic paints, be sure to wear art smocks or old clothes and monitor children.)

Paint brush

Twigs and branches (either collected from your yard or purchased from a craft store)

Craft glue


2 small wooden dowels (about¼ inch in diameter), cut to about five inches long

Hole punch

Sturdy string or cord

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