How Birds Can Capture a Kid's Imagination Bill Thompson, the author of The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, says the trick to getting children interested in bird-watching is simply getting them outside. All they need is a guide, an ear and binoculars.
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How Birds Can Capture a Kid's Imagination

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How Birds Can Capture a Kid's Imagination

How Birds Can Capture a Kid's Imagination

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. And here's an idea for trying to pry your kid away from the iPod or the Hannah Montana video or the Webkinz: How about going outside and trying to find birds? And that's a proposal from Bill Thompson, who's here with us today at Huntley Meadows Park in Virginia. Bill has written the "Young Birders Guide to Birds of Eastern North America." Hey, Bill.

Mr. BILL THOMPSON (Bird Watcher): Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And I've brought a young birder with me today, my daughter Chloe - Chloe, who's almost six. Hi, Chloe.


BLOCK: And we are here to try to see what we can see. And this is a beautiful spot we're in right now, Bill. We're on a wooden bridge over some marshland, and we're hearing all sorts of birds all around us, Bill. What are we hearing right here?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, there's a northern cardinal, male northern cardinal sitting right next to us here.

BLOCK: And what's that call?

Mr. THOMPSON: He's kind of doing a teeter, teeter, teeter. And then there's a red-wing blackbird here singing.

BLOCK: That sort of bray. Bray.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right. Conkery(ph). And some Canada geese way over on the other side of the marsh.

BLOCK: Making a racket.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Honking. And then we've had a common yellowthroat singing just along the boardwalk here.

BLOCK: Common yellowthroat sounds like what?

Mr. THOMPSON: Witchity(ph), witchity, witchity. Although, down South, they're a little bit slower: witchity, witchity, witchity. It's true.

(Soundbite laughter)

BLOCK: They have a Southern accent.

Mr. THOMPSON: That's true. It's true. Let me get the scope, here set.

BLOCK: Okay. I'll wait for you. Chloe, come here and see if this scope is the right height for you. We may need to go a little lower. You see a bird in there?

Ms. BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: What color is it?

Ms. BLOCK: Black and red.

Mr. THOMPSON: Where's the red?

Ms. BLOCK: Like on its wings.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right. You know what that is? It's a male red-wing blackbird. There, he just sang. He goes conkery.

(Soundbite of bird singing)

BLOCK: Did you hear that?

Ms. BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: You'll be able to see him when he sings. Watch.

(Soundbite of bird singing)

Mr. THOMPSON: You saw him sing?

Ms. BLOCK: I saw him moving his mouth.

Mr. THOMPSON: That's when he's singing. Conkery.

Ms. BLOCK: Conkery.

(Soundbite of bird singing)

BLOCK: How hard a sell, Bill, is it for you to convince your kids' friends that birding might be fun, isn't totally uncool? How to pry them out of the house?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, it's - the first thing is just to get them out of the house. And it's not hard once you've got birds to look at to spark a kid's imagination, because, you know, birds have these qualities that we as humans completely admire. They're beautifully colored. In many cases, they make amazing noises. And they can do something that we've only been able to do in the last hundred years, which is fly. And, of course, the thing we did in the book to get the kids' attention was these wow facts.

BLOCK: So the wow fact on every page is in a circle. It's a big, red word that says wow, exclamation point. And this is like the fun fact, the cool thing about that bird.

Chloe, we were just talking about the wow facts in the book. Was there a wow fact in this book that you really like?

Ms. BLOCK: Yes. Turkey vultures.

BLOCK: Well, what about the turkey vultures. What do they do?

Ms. BLOCK: Turkey vultures puke...

BLOCK: Just say it, hon.

Ms. BLOCK: ...puke on an intruder.

BLOCK: They do?

Ms. BLOCK: Yes.

BLOCK: And then what happens?

Ms. BLOCK: When they are mad. And you cannot get the smell out.

BLOCK: Really? Ever?

Ms. BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: You can wash your clothes and you can soak them in vinegar, it will not get the smell out. You may as well just burn them.

BLOCK: So we're walking on a boardwalk through the marsh, here - trails on all sides.

Mr. THOMPSON: You've got a lot of cattails here, a lot of jewelweed down in the cattails.

There's some mallards on the back side of the pond. There's a little slew.

BLOCK: Oh, yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. THOMPSON: Let's put the scope on those mallards. Chloe might like to see those. Hey, Chloe, do you want to see these mallards over here?

Ms. BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay, let's put the scope on, okay? Step right through here. All right. You'll need to tell me what you see right here, Chloe.

Ms. BLOCK: Okay. Oh, yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: What do you see now?

Ms. BLOCK: Two mallards.

Mr. THOMPSON: And describe them. What do you - what are the field marks?

Ms. BLOCK: Very kind of like half the (unintelligible) and the yellow beak. And they have black on their tails.

Mr. THOMPSON: That's right.

Ms. BLOCK: And white behind their black.

BLOCK: We got a big bird flying overhead.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, yeah. Do you hear all the red-wings doing that whistle call? That's a warning. That's a warning call. And this is a raptor. It's a hawk. I believe it's a young red-shouldered hawk. So they're warning everybody else. Hey, there's a hawk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of birds singing)

BLOCK: All right. Let's move up, though, see if we can find more birds.

Ms. BLOCK: Are there an egrets around here?

Mr. THOMPSON: There really should be some egrets here. I don't know where they are right now.

BLOCK: What's that?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know what that bird is? That's a phoebe. That's the bird that named our daughter Phoebe after.

BLOCK: Back on that branch?

Mr. THOMPSON: On that (unintelligible) to the right of the (unintelligible). I'm going to put the scope on it and see if we can see the phoebe.

BLOCK: Hi, guys. He's grey.

Mr. THOMPSON: You see it? Okay. Let me put it down.

Ms. BLOCK: It looks kind of like brown, clay-colored.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yup. And do you see it flicking its tail at all?

Ms. BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: That's what phoebes do. That's one of the ways you can tell them apart from other fly catchers, is that they flick their tail.

BLOCK: That's kind of a plain little bird.

Mr. THOMPSON: It is. It's a drab little bird, but, you know, they're one of the first insect-eating birds that you start seeing in the spring. It's a real happy bird. And they're really energetic. They're always flicking their tail and singing, you know, phoebe.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

BLOCK: Do you worry about kids losing touch with nature and not getting outside so much?

Mr. THOMPSON: I do. And we all have our attention spans just cut down to a fraction, and it's harder and harder to find time to do anything that takes time. I think that concern is that with all the stuff that gets pushed at us everyday - you know, and cell phones and iPods and the Internet, I mean, we just - our brains are filling up and we don't get that relaxing release that nature gives us. After all, we're animals just like anything else, and this is our natural habitat. You know, our natural habitat isn't sitting in a cubicle.

BLOCK: And then the trick is how do you get a kid who's used to fast action everything to slow down and wait for what might be a long time before something shows up that's interesting.

Mr. THOMPSON: That's true, but one thing we've done with our son Liam, who's not really much a birdwatcher yet. He's eight. He leads the trip. We say, Liam, you're the scout. You chart the path, and tell us what you see. He loves that, because then he's got a job to do, and he's - he can self pilot.

BLOCK: Put him in charge.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, they're in charge, anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: It would help any kid to have a pair binoculars. How much would that set them back?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, there are really good binoculars now that are good for kids - and you need to have binoculars that are right for small hands, and the eyepieces need to go close enough together for a young person's eye - about $100. And, you know, binoculars and a starter field guide, a really good to go. And what I found that really works well is to have the kid do as Chloe's done now, write down the birds when they see them and the date and maybe the place. And then they've always got that book of memories for years to come. I've still got my book that I started in 1969...

BLOCK: Really?

Mr. THOMPSON: ...with my, you know, little scrawly handwriting there about the first birds that I saw. And I love going back and looking at that.

BLOCK: Well, Bill Thompson, this has been a fun day of birding. Thanks for coming out.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's been a pleasure, Melissa. And Chloe, thanks for coming out birding with me today.

Ms. BLOCK: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Bill Thompson, the author of "The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America."

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