For the Birds Radio Program: Birding from a Car with Kids
(Recording of an Eastern Meadowlark)
My family took a short trip to Chicago two weeks ago. Before we had children we thought the drive was long, but we’ve discovered that a one-year-old, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old packed into a car lengthen any trip significantly. Finding all the letters of the alphabet on street signs is a bit sophisticated for my youngest, but the bird game helped pass away many of the miles.
The object of the bird game is simply to identify as many different kinds of birds as you can on a trip. Although side trips to actual birding spots don’t count, any birds seen from a moving vehicle, at rest stops, or from restaurant or motel windows are fair game.
The rules of the bird game vary with the age and experience of the participants. My one-year-old plays perhaps the simplest form of the game–whenever he spots a bird, kite, airplane, or other flying object, he shouts out “Bodie! Bodie!” and the rest of us clap and cheer. My three-year-old can distinguish between gulls and ducks and Red-winged Blackbirds and Blue Jays and crows, but most other things are still just birdies to her, too. My five-year-old is at the stage where he recognizes quite a few birds, and sees quite a few more. When he spots an unidentified flying object, he either asks “What’s that?” or, sacrificing accuracy for optimism, shouts, “Look! A Bald Eagle!” He has not yet developed a true birder’s tunnel vision, and so when he shouts “There’s a Crane!” he’s often pointing at something yellow and mechanical. He’s as satisfied with a cow as with a cowbird, and when he yearns for an “orio,” it’s usually the cookie. But he’s learning to say “Gull” instead of “Seagull,” and never calls a Chimney Swift a “Chimney Sweep,” so I expect that it won’t be long before I have a real competitor at the grown-up level of the bird game.
Although it takes a long time to get really good at birding from a moving car, it’s not hard for even a beginner to list a couple of dozen species during an hour on the road. Start with the easy ones–Ring- billed Gulls as you pass a McDonald’s, Rock Doves on the high bridge, maybe a Mallard or Canada Goose in the St. Louis River below. Red- winged Blackbirds sit on fences and wires along just about every highway, and the yellow breast and black v-neckline of a meadowlark is easy to spot from a moving car in farm country. The American Kestrel, also known as the sparrow hawk, often perches along roadsides or hovers over a field hunting for grasshoppers. If you notice a bluebird house, look for a tree swallow or even an eastern bluebird. There’s a great bluebird trail right along the expressway between Duluth and Minneapolis. And as you get near the Twin Cities, just about every roadside pond has an egret or Great Blue Heron fishing conspicuously.
Passing through wooded country, you might recognize a chickadee or nuthatch zipping across the road by the swooping flight of the long- tailed chickadee and the stumpy look of a flying nuthatch.
As you get better, you might even start identifying birds by the snatches of song that you hear as you whiz past. 55 is not only a safer speed than 65 for people and wildlife, it’s also a better speed for catching complete songs through an open car window–like this Ovenbird.
(Recording of an Ovenbird)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”