On a recent Saturday morning family stroll through the forest, a welcome soundtrack was playing all around us. “Conk-la-ree! conk-la-ree!” Red-winged blackbirds announcing their return after a long winter away, chickadees’ familiar “fee-bee-bee” echoed among the trees, and excited cardinals zipped past us on their search for breakfast.
“That cardinal sounds like he’s going full laser,” my 8-year-old exclaimed.
A couple of years into our bird-watching adventures and the kids can now identify some of the different calls and songs of their favourite species. And a bird that sports a rock star hairstyle and sounds like he’s playing with a mini ray gun is at the top of their “awesome birds” list.
Male northern cardinal. Photo credit: Christine Latreille
Birding during the pandemic
They’re cute and cheerful, and they’re the centre of one of this year’s hottest new hobbies. These little feathered friends have done a lot to lift spirits during a particularly tough period.
In a year of uncertainty and increased screen time, people of all ages have turned to nature and bird watching as a way to alleviate pandemic-related stress, and safely enjoy time outdoors. Birding and its integrated outdoor time has helped lower blood pressure, increased exercise, and given us a chance to just…breathe.
So many have taken up birding as a new hobby that budding birdwatchers even helped set bird-count records in 2020, with over 50,000 eagle-eyed observers taking part in May’s annual Global Big Day — reporting a record-breaking 2.1 million bird observations; while the 24th annual Great Backyard Bird Count held in February is on track to shatter the previous year’s records.
A family-friendly activity
You don’t have to travel far to enjoy birds’ entertaining antics. They can be found in backyards, at local parks, and perched on balcony railings! Learning about birds and their homes, understanding their different calls, and experiencing the natural world is an experience that adults and kids can share together.
Craft or buy a birdfeeder and you enjoy them right outside your window, or make one of these easy and eco-friendly feeders from Run Wild My Child. (Pro tip: squirrels won’t touch safflower seeds!)
One way to jazz up your backyard or balcony and have the chance of seeing fluffy chicks is to create a cozy nook for your local birds with a birdhouse. You can find already made houses at the dollar store (though they don’t stand up well to real-world weather), buy ready-to-build-kits at hardware stores and online, or bust out the hammer and saw and construct your own. I love the penny-roofed house in this list of plans and ideas from The Spruce Crafts.
Make it fun with cool gear
Scopes, binoculars, and cameras are just as fun for kids as they are for adults. I purchased an inexpensive drawstring bag with a compass, notebook, binoculars, and a small scope to use when we’re out on walks and hikes. And when I’m feeling brave, I let the kids try out my fancy camera and long lens so they can zoom in for detailed shots.
An array of resources online
Plenty of opportunities to delve deeper into the world of birds are offered by regional, provincial, and neighbourhood groups. Since 2015, QuebecOiseaux has organized The Christmas Bird Rally where youth aged 7 to 17 years and their families are invited to take note of all the birds they see in a day. Unable to get together with an ornithologist this year for an in-person event, children were able to share their drawings and pictures on social media for a chance to win prizes.
Birds Canada offers an array of educational activities that you can work on at home or on your next outdoor excursion, and craft ideas that are easy to make. The detailed 32-page Junior Birder Journal and Activity Book has tips for identifying and protecting neighbourhood birds, explanations about migration and bird behaviour, and space to write your own observations. DIY bird feeders are a fun way to learn about nutrition and get your hands messy, and with Bird Yard Bingo you can get in some exercise while practicing observation skills.
Listening to birds cheeping in the trees or in the yard can be one of the most relaxing sounds throughout the day. For a fun experiment, try using this interactive webpage to see how many of the bird species your kids can identify. Gobble-gobble!
Download a bird identification app that allow you to keep track of the species you see in the field and you’ve got a real-life game of Pokémon Go. Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab and eBird are both free and available for Android and iPhone.
For those days that are just too cold rainy to actually get outside, the virtual games in Cornell University’s Bird Academy Play Lab are just the thing for learning about bird anatomy and feathers. You can even be a wildlife DJ. Now that’s cool!
Follow some basic rules
When you do go outside birding, make sure to follow your local health guidelines in relation to COVID-19 and social distancing rules, and use the precautions below to ensure the well-being of people and animals.
- Though we’d all like to share our findings, it’s not currently a good idea to share binoculars, cameras, or cell phones with those outside your family bubble.
- Keep your distance, between other people and wildlife.
- If you’re heading into a regional park or wildlife preserve, make sure to stay on marked trails.
- Only bring dogs if they are allowed, and always keep them on a leash.
- Stay quiet. Many birds rest during the day, and some, like owls, have extremely sensitive hearing. Keep a large distance and don’t disturb sleeping birds.
- Respect nature. Bring home any waste and leave no trace.
If you’re looking for a spot to go birding in or around Montreal, Bird Protection Quebec has a list of over 100 popular birding locations by region, and you can also download a free pdf booklet for the complete list.
Related Read: 10 nature activities you can do with kids