This home-based nature project looks at some recommendations for best bird books for children. The objective is to have fun. At the same time, it will help to keep children occupied and educated, for example during the current coronavirus lockdown at home.
This blog post will cover the following topics:
- How is the coronavirus affecting Belgium?
- What makes a good bird book for children?
- Suggestions of best bird books for younger and older children
- Reading projects to do together with children
- Why are male birds more colorful than female birds?
- What’s the best European bird identification book?
- One of my favorite nature writers.
How is the coronavirus affecting Belgium?
How are you in this terrible coronavirus crisis? I send you my best wishes for your health and safety. Belgium is under lockdown, and when we need exercise we are strongly recommended to stay local. So I won’t be going on any new walks. Instead, to help prevent you and your children going stir crazy, I am putting together this series of home-based nature projects.
The first project in the series introduced you and your child or grandchild to the joys of watching birds in the garden. The next one was an intensely practical project: building a bee hotel. Now we return to our feathered friends. While watching garden birds, sooner or later you’re going to be asked: “What’s that bird over there?” If you really haven’t got a clue, then it’s time to move to the next home-based nature project. To buy or borrow a bird book.
Before getting into details, Discovering Belgium is an Amazon affiliate. This means that any books you purchase through the links below earn me a commission. It’s very small, but every little bit helps to run the site. (Actually, I’ll let you into a little secret. ANYTHING you buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk after getting on their websites from one of these links gives me a little commission! So any time you want to buy anything from Amazon, maybe you could consider navigating there via one of these links? Thanks!).
Which bird book is best for children?
A cursory glance along the Nature shelves of a high street or online bookstore clearly shows the vast number of bird books published. In addition, a huge range of online birdwatching guides and mobile phone apps is available.
Here I’ll be focusing on printed bird books rather than online material or apps. I’ll cover apps in a later post. Paper books are a pleasure to look at, take to bed to read, share with visitors, and provide a refreshing break from screens.
Although there are many different types of bird book, the one I’m going to focus on initially is the bird identification guide book. Also called field guides — because they are compact and light enough to take with you into the field — these books are generally regional. So they focus on the birds found in a particular area of the world, like north-west Europe, Central America, Polynesia etc. Some are more specific and concentrate on the birds present in a particular country, or even a region, province or state.
Best bird books for younger children
For a young child starting to watch birds, I recommend going even more specific. Select a book on garden birds. This will tie-in with project #1 (watching garden birds). It will also ensure that a child is not going to be suddenly overwhelmed with hundreds of pictures of rarer birds that they are probably not going to spot (yet!). Such a book displays large, clear, color photographs of the most frequent feathered visitors to a garden in your part of the world.
Below are two examples. The one on the left is a US-based book that has very good reviews but I have not seen myself. The one on the right I am familiar with and think it’s an excellent little book.
The RSPB Pocket Garden Birdwatch is laid out well with clear illustrations and helpful photographs. It has just the right amount of informative text for younger readers. This would make a great gift for a youngster in the UK or Western Europe starting out birdwatching.
For younger readers, there are all sorts of books available that introduce a lot of fun into birdwatching. They include coloring books, sticker books, pop-up books, I-Spy books, activity books, audio books, and even “bird bingo” books. Here are a few that are highly recommended by others, although I have no direct experience of them.
Helping children understand bird books
Whatever basic bird identification book you end up with, younger children might need some help. For example, to accurately match the birds they are seeing in the garden with the photographs in the book. The photos are rarely going to be life-size. So seeing a blackbird on the lawn and then pointing to a picture of a black crow that’s twice its size is an easy mistake to make.
Birdwatching is a fun hobby, particularly at this early stage, so introduce fun aspects into bird identification whenever possible.
PROJECTS TO DO TOGETHER
- Taking a trip to the local bookshop or town library is not possible in many countries at the moment due to the coronavirus. So visit your favorite online story to purchase an appropriate bird book.
- Show the child a picture of a bird in the book and ask if they know its name.
- Conduct mini-challenges. “The first one to spot a robin today.” “The first to identify a new garden bird this weekend”. “How many birds in your book can we spot in the garden today?”
- Buy a bird memory game or a set of bird flashcards.
“Why do male birds look different to female birds?”
As well as enabling birds to be identified, these books will introduce the child to another interesting fact. Males and females of the same species sometimes have quite radically different plumage. For example, the child may like to look carefully at the house sparrows in the garden. They may notice that some have a neat grey cap, black bib and chestnut back. These are the males. The plumage of other house sparrows is various shades of grey and brown. These are the females. (Pictures from Pixabay).
Or see if the child can distinguish the male blackbird from the female. The male has glossy black plumage, and a bright orange-yellow beak and eye-ring. The female blackbird isn’t black at all but is brown, with a brown beak.
As you go through the book with the child, point out these differences. He or she can then identify not only the species, but also whether it’s a male or female. Of course, once you have pointed these differences out to the budding birdwatcher, you know what question is coming …
“WHY are male birds more colorful than female birds?”
Some of these beginners’ books may give the answer; others may not. There are three main reasons. The first is that male birds have to compete with other male birds for territory. They often use feather color to warn potential rivals off their own patch. Second, male birds have to attract the attention of a mate. Bright plumage is one of the ways they can do this. Scientists think that in some species, a female judges a male’s health and ability to take good care of the nestlings by the state and color of its plumage. Third, in most species, it’s the female bird that sits on the nest and broods the eggs. It’s an evolutionary advantage to look as inconspicuous as possible so as not to be noticed by a passing predator.
Best bird books for older children
As the young birdwatcher grows in knowledge, they may be keen to identify birds seen elsewhere: on family day trips or holidays, for example. This is where a more comprehensive field guide — perhaps covering all the birds seen in that country, region or state — is invaluable. So let’s look at some bird books for older children.
An important difference between the simpler books on garden birds and these more comprehensive field guides is that whereas the former books usually have photographs of birds, the field guides will have hand-drawn illustrations.
This is because an illustration is more detailed and technical. It enables the illustrator to show all the physical traits used to identify a bird, highlight the key plumage differences between species, and point out the distinguishing marks better. The illustrations will also cover the differences between the sexes in more detail. They will show how a bird’s plumage can change as they mature, or even through the seasons. These often detailed differences are not always visible in photographs, when lighting, weather conditions and the position of the bird affect the outcome.
If the child shows the enthusiasm to take their hobby further, one useful skill is to be able to name what are called the “main feather tracts.” These are the names given to the different groups of feathers on a bird. A good field guide will have a drawing of a stereotypical bird with all the main feather tracts captioned.
What’s the best European bird field guide?
For European readers, a highly recommended field guide is The Collins Bird Guide by Peter J. Grant and Lars Svensson.
It describes 722 species which breed or regularly occur in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The illustrations are outstanding. I particularly like the addition of tiny “distant views” showing what each species looks like at long range. Or in poor light (as they are so often seen). Brief captions highlight particularly useful clues to identify a species. Moreover, the illustrations cover male, female and juvenile birds, as well as birds in flight.
Breeding biology and migratory habits are briefly described where these are important for identification. Clear distribution maps are useful to establish whether it is reasonable to expect to see a certain species somewhere.
The authors also make an outstanding effort to describe bird song and calls in words — not an easy task! Just turning to one at random, let’s look at the oystercatcher. We read that ‘its piping call has typical phrases, accelerating “kip-kip-kip-kip-kip” running into a fast “kliklikli…” and a distinctive bubbling trill “prrrrrrr…” while its flight song contains slower “plee-ah plee-ah plee-ah …” in time with wingbeats.’
That may appear to be total gibberish. But I know the oystercatcher’s calls very well, and these descriptions are amazingly accurate!
As mentioned above, a good bird book will also show the main feather tracts. This is what The Collins Bird Guide does:
PROJECTS TO DO TOGETHER
- Help the child familiarize themselves with a more complex field guide, its overall structure and the layout of the pages.
- Test them to see if they know the abbreviations used in the field guide.
- Place some post-its over the captions to the main feather tracts and see how many of them the child can name.
- Ask them to give examples of birds with certain characteristics like an eye-ring, eye stripe, moustachial stripe etc.
Beginning birdwatchers in the USA are often steered towards the Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America, although Sibley Birds East and Sibley Birds West are more portable because of their regionality. In Australia, birdwatchers highly rank The Australian Bird Guide.
Wherever you live, it should be possible to buy a field guide to the birds in your neighborhood. Or borrow one from the local lending library.
Other types of bird books
Apart from field guides, there are many other types of bird books that could inspire children in their new hobby. In the non-fiction genre, there are books describing in-depth analyses of species; accounts of the interactions between people and birds; biographies of birdwatchers; and specific quests to spot all the birds in a particular country, or certain rare birds. There are books on how to draw birds and photograph birds, and books explaining various aspects of bird life such as migration, courtship behavior, nesting, the use of tools, and the wonders of flight.
Fictional stories with birds as the main or sole characters abound and are suitable for all ages of reader. All bird books, of whatever type, can be immensely inspiring and provide a significant incentive to further develop this hobby.
Finally, let me introduce one of my favorite nature writers, who will appeal to older children and adults. Of course, reading is a great coronavirus lockdown project!
John Lister-Kaye is a writer, conservationist and lecturer. He’s also the director of the Aigas Field Centre in Scotland, which educates 5,000 children every year in outdoor nature studies.
In Song of the Rolling Earth (2003) and its sequel, Nature’s Child (2004), Lister-Kaye celebrates his passion for nature and wildlife and introduces us to the wildlife living in and around the Aigas Field Centre. These widely acclaimed books were followed in 2010 by At The Water’s Edge and by Gods of the Morning, published in 2015. The latter title won him the inaugural Writer’s Prize by the Richard Jefferies Society.
His latest book, The Dun Cow Rib, was published in 2017 and was in a slightly different direction that didn’t hold my interest as much as the others.
What I love about Lister-Kaye is his powers of patient observation. He will literally sit and watch and notice things that many of us either miss completely or fail to observe for any length of time. A kestrel seizing a slow worm only to end up with a tail in its talons as the slow worm jettisoned its tail and escaped, falling to the floor. A goshawk chasing a wood pigeon and knocking itself out on a fence post. Getting up close and personal with a magnificent red deer stag after meticulously stalking it. An ichneumon wasp boring a hole in a tree trunk and laying its eggs. He’s a great inspiration for us all to do the same: take time and watch.
But don’t for one instant think that his books are full of romanticized musings. Lister-Kaye is very much a 21st century conservationist. He comes down heavily on our society which is “drunk with energy lust,” with “chemical-dependent agricultural systems which expend ten calories of energy to grow and transport to the markets a single calorie of food.” He wonders whether “mankind has lost its way because we are out of touch with the biorhythms that controlled our lives long ago.” In other words, his books are books to enjoy but they will also shake you up.
More to come in this series …
So there you have it. My third coronavirus lockdown project. If you haven’t followed this series, so far I’ve covered watching garden birds and building a bee hotel. I hope that this post gives you and your children/grandchildren plenty of ideas. Not just for books to take your and their interest in birdwatching and nature forward. But to keep sane during these difficult days. Stay tuned for my next coronavirus lockdown project. Or subscribe to Discovering Belgium. As always, just drop me a line if you have any questions. I’ll be happy to recommend specific books on specific nature topics.