Looking for a fun and simple activity to do with kids outside? Birding might be just the thing to try. Interest in birding soared during the pandemic and this spring, it shows no sign of letting up. So we talked with Jessica Becker, program specialist at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, aka Jessica the Bird Nerd, to get some tips on getting started.
“Birding is really great because the diversity of birds is so large and most people don’t realize it until they really start to pay attention,” says Becker, who offers Zoom classes on being a better birder. “In Chicagoland, you really see how diverse they are, even in this urban area, which speaks to how healthy our habitats are and how places like the Forest Preserve and park district are important for preserving those spaces.”
Ways to get kids involved
Birding is especially great for kids. “I think it should be fun for kids because every time you go out, it’s different. The types of birds are different, the preserve or park you go to is different. So every time, it’s a brand new experience,” she says.
Getting started can be as simple as going out into your backyard. While putting up a bird feeder is easy, she says it does take a bit of research and commitment. “Just a little bit of extra effort, it’s totally worth it in my opinion.”
One way to make birding fun for kids is to create a scavenger hunt. Becker calls birding “the scavenger hunt that never ends because every day you can add something new to your scavenger hunt and it should last a lifetime.”
But don’t put pressure on anyone.
“Keep an open mind and realize as a family you are learning a new skill and that takes time and it’s not always about finding as many birds as possible and being able to ID them; sometimes it’s just about the experience of being around birds,” she says.
Great places to look for birds
Most of the forest preserves offer great places to see birds, she says.
The nature centers, such as the North Park Nature Center in Chicago and Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs, are also great places to start because they usually have bird feeders and knowledgeable staff on hand. Some might even offer birding programs for families that give kids hands-on activities to make it a more sensory experience.
The Forest Preserve District of Cook County, for example, also has a searchable calendar of bird walks at fpdcc.com/events.
One of Becker’s favorite places is Eggers Grove on the far southeast side of Chicago, which features a marsh and wetland that lets you get close to see the ducks and water birds.
Common birds to spot
March and April bring the spring migration back to Chicagoland so she suggests heading to a local waterway to see all the different kinds of ducks and waterfowl.
“The possibilities are endless with the kinds of birds we can see as they all head north,” she says.
Even the popular and large Sandhill cranes will be stopping by so that’s always exciting for kids to see.
Birders can find information on bird sightings and their location on ebird.org, which can be searched by region.
You can definitely start birding without any special equipment or tools, but there are some things that can help make it more engaging for families.
Binoculars can be helpful, but Becker says she knows from experience that getting kids to use them correctly can be tough.
“I know it sounds kind of silly, but even making those toilet paper tube binoculars is really simple. You don’t get the magnification, but what it does is limit your sight lines so you can focus on what’s right in front of you,” she says.
It’s also helpful to have a handy birding field guide to help ID the birds you spot. Becker likes the Backyard Birds of North America pocket naturalist guide.
Families can also download the app called Identiflyer to their phone or device to play bird calls.
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