Choosing FeedersFor the widest variety of birds, think about your levels. Some birds like to eat from the ground, others from hanging feeders, others from suet, and still others from elevated trays. Of course, your classroom location will determine which birds visit your feeder. When I was on the playground side of my school I was visited by very different birds than we see on the forest side.
I decided to start small with the free feeder from BirdSleuth (offered occasionally). Over the past five years, I've added more and more! It's important to choose something that is easy to clean, inexpensive, and sturdy.
My students love the juncos, cardinals, chickadees, and finches that come to the tray. We sometimes put out unsalted peanuts, which attracts my class's favorite: the blue jay.
Tube feeders: These are cheap and attract a nice variety of finches. Last year, though, we had record rainfall, and I did find that mold sometimes grew in the nyjer seed.
Suet feeders: Suet is inexpensive and attracts woodpeckers and nuthatches, which are fun to watch. If you are not near a forest, you may find that starlings come to get your suet, which is also interesting.
Peanut butter: In the years that I don't have any students with allergies, I purchase peanut butter to put outside as well. You can see the feeder in the photo above, but honestly it's easy enough to just smear peanut butter on some branches or put it on some wired pine cones. The Carolina wrens love it! Plus, it's way cheaper than many other kinds of seed.
Feeder cam: No place for a feeder? No problem! The Ontario FeederWatch and the Cornell Birds Feeder are great to display for students.
Feeder cleaning: Whatever kind of feeder you use, be sure to clean it frequently so that you are not inadvertently spreading disease.
IdentificationPart of the fun of observing birds is learning their names. I like to use a classroom birds slideshow as a fun icebreaker at the start of the school year. Kids like practicing their identification skills with photos I've taken at the window. They're often amazed to find out how many different species we can see just from our classroom.
The allaboutbirds.org site is excellent for teaching students website navigation skills. I especially appreciate that it doesn't have external ads! With these webpages, you can teach all about digital text features, navigation, and browsing. There are great nonfiction texts there for the reading as well.
Will your students make some identifications that sound silly at first? Absolutely! It's only through practice that students learn how to find the maps to see if a bird lives in their area, how to sift through the photos of similar birds, and how to connect bird behavior to different types of birds. Be patient and make the identification process a learning experience from start to finish.
Bird Observation JournalOnce students get to be good at identification, I get out the bird observation journal. This is a place for students to record what they are seeing at the window. Kids may get up and look out the window, one or two at a time, as long as they write down what they see.
Each year, students decide how they'd like to organize the journal. Sometimes students prefer to go by hour, while at other points students like to just write down what they see in a more casual way.
There are occasionally discrepancies and problems with our data, which just means...we're doing science! When there are issues (wait, that wasn't a white-crowned sparrow, it was a white-throated sparrow!), we can discuss what these mean for our data and what to do next.
PhenologyThe records in our observation journals then become data for future years! We can track when the juncos will arrive, when the white-throated sparrows will leave, and when the goldfinches will turn yellow. As I tell my students...it's all because we noticed what was there and wrote stuff down.
Closing ThoughtsI'm not sure when the process of knowing what lives around us and following the patterns of season and sky became unworthy of teaching. When I was in fifth grade, I told my teacher that I wanted to be a naturalist when I grew up. She said, "That's not a job."
This is the kind of thinking that has brought us here--facing a future with insect populations in collapse, monarch butterflies disappearing, once familiar birds of field and forest now rare and unseen. You can't love what you don't notice. Taking the time to help students appreciate and love what surrounds us is worth the effort.