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It is time of year again to start planning for the Great Backyard Bird Count, February 17-20, 2012.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is easy and fun. Be sure to visit the website and read all the instructions, but in a nutshell you need to set aside at least 15 minutes on at least one of the days, gather a paper, pencil and a set of binoculars (optional) and count the birds you can see in your yard or neighborhood. When you are finished, you enter the data in the online form at the website (open only during the count). Then check back to see what birds others have counted in your community.

Related activities:

1. Bird Watching

Bird watching is a popular and engaging activity. You don't need to travel or have expensive gear to bird watch. You can simply look out the window and spot birds. Birds are interesting because they are colorful, active and can be found almost anywhere. At various times of year birds are migrating, singing, building nests and raising babies. There's always something exciting going on amongst your neighborhood birds.

Are you a complete beginner? Learn your birds by figuring out a few at a time, using field guides and websites. Here are some popular field guides:

Keep a notebook full of drawings and notes next to your favorite birding window. Over the course of a year you will begin to recognize the regulars and also new birds.

Many communities offer bird hikes and birding classes. Check you local newspaper and do a few Internet searches for local birding clubs and events.

2. Bird Feeders
What can you do to encourage birds? Many people start by making simple bird feeders, such as the classic pinecone rolled in birdseed. Many of the crafts you see suggest using peanut butter, which is not fun at all for children with peanut allergies. Try this alternative that actually attracts a larger assortment of birds as well.


  • dry, clean pine cones, enough for all participants
  • lard (available in most grocery stores) at room temperature
  • bird seed
  • ribbon or string
  • plate or tray to spread seed on
  • butter knife or craft sticks

Spread the bird seed on a tray. Tie the string or ribbon on the pine cones to serve as a hanger.  Have the children "butter" the pine cones with lard, either using their fingers or craft sticks, filling in the cracks. Then roll the filled pine cones in the bird seed, which should stick. (Note:  I found it was easier to tie the strings first, but you can also do it last). Hang the pine cones in a tree that you can watch and wait for the birds to discover it.

You can make another simple feeder by stringing fruit such as raisins, grapes, cherries or orange sections on a bit of twine or string and hanging it out. Just be careful and find out what works best in your region because scattering food for birds can also attract unwanted guests, including bears in some areas!

Often you can reduce the number of unwelcome guests by choosing what type of food you present and how. For example, niger thistle seed attracts colorful birds like finches and doves, but not pigeons or rats. Check with your local Audubon Society or other birding resources for recommendations.

3. Nesting Materials
Making cards full of nesting materials can be a fun project that is easy to do with supplies from around the house.


  • index cards or roughly three-inch by five-inch pieces of card stock, enough for all participants
  • hole punch or scissors
  • yarn, preferably wool or cotton
  • thread
  • hair or anything else you think a bird might use in its nest
  • string or ribbon to hang card

Brainstorm about what might be useful to a bird. Poke holes in the index cards with a hole punch or cut holes with scissors (with an adult’s help). Tie a 12-inch piece of string, yarn or ribbon through one hole to serve as a hanger. Loosely stuff the rest of the holes with a variety of nest making supplies, making sure the birds can pull it out fairly easily. When you are finished, go outside and hang the cards in bushes or trees where the birds will find the materials. Check over time to see which materials they chose first, second, etc. Refill the cards as needed.

4. Bird Garden

If you get serious about birding, you might think about planting a bird garden. Find out abut which native plants in your area provide food or shelter for birds and add a few to your garden. Providing water through a birdbath or pond is also helpful as long as the water is kept clean and fresh. Check for more information in books, magazines and on the Internet for useful plants to grow in your region or community.

5. Fly like a Bird

Study birds in flight. Make a kite, decorate it like a bird and fly it on a windy day.

Finally, even if it is raining and nothing is happening outdoors, ask your child what it would be like to fly like a bird. Then pretend you are birds. Spread your wings and soar and swoop together.

For more information try:


American Birding Association

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Bird Studies Canada

For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Peggy Thomas and illustrated by Laura Jacques

Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press (October 1, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1590787641
ISBN-13: 978-1590787649

And these books about birds for children:

Disclosures: I am an affiliate for Amazon. If you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.


Today we were inspired two bright and colorful books for first graders, Macaws by Cecilia Pinto McCarthy and Rain Forest Life by Janine Scott. These two books would be perfect to accompany a trip to the zoo or a unit on rain forests for the youngest set.

Macaws are from Mexico, Central and South America. Their bright colors and inquisitive natures make them popular with humans.

Facts about Macaws:

  • have colorful feathers
  • can live 50 years or more
  • have strong beaks for eating fruit and seeds
  • males and females pair for life
  • nest in tree cavities
  • travel in flocks

Most macaws live in rain forests. A rain forest is a place with trees that gets a lot of rain. How much rain? Some rain forests get up to an inch of rain per day, or 365 inches per year! Rain forests are often found in warm, tropical regions, but there are also cooler rain forests. An example of a cooler climate rain forest occurs in the west coast of the state of Washington.

Tropical rain forests are home to an abundance of interesting, colorful, and unique birds, in addition to macaws:


1. Bird Beaks

Birds use their beaks for many of the same purposes that we humans use our hands. Birds eat with their beaks, build nests with them, and even groom themselves with them. Birds do not have teeth, but they do have tongues.

One of the first things you might notice about the macaws, toucans, hornbills and hummingbirds is how different their beaks are.

(Photograph of hyacinth macaw by Malcolm at Wikimedia)

The macaw's beak is long and curved on top, coming to a hook at the end. The lower beak is short and stubby in comparison. It looks rather like a can opener.

Check out how these wild macaws use the pointed tip of their beak and their tongue to remove nut meats from nuts. Note: This video has numerous pop-up ads.

The toucan's beak is so large that you might wonder how it flies. It turns out that the beak is very light. Toucans eat mostly fruit, although they also eat insects.

The hornbill's beak is also very large. The structure on the top is called a "casque" and it is thought to be involved with calling (sound production). Larger hornbills have a diet similar that of the toucan. Smaller ones are omnivorous (they eat many things), or even carnivorous (eating only meat).

The hummingbird's beak is long and slender like a needle. Known for drinking nectar from flowers, hummingbirds also eat small flying insects.

Eating like a Bird

1. Food


  • various small fruits like blueberries, raisins, nuts, 0-shaped cereals, gummy worms, and small crackers (check about food allergies beforehand and avoid foods with those ingredients). If you don't want the children to snack on the food afterwards, choose inedible items like un-popped popcorn and packing peanuts.
  • plates or dishes to present the food on
  • variety of equipment to mimic bird beaks, such as tongs, toy pliers, toothpicks, chopsticks, tweezers or forceps, and straws
  • paper cups or similar containers to act as the bird's "crop" (where the food goes)
  • timer (optional)

Depending on the number of children and the amount of food and equipment you have, you might want to form small groups.  Explain that the children are going to "eat like a bird." Suggest that they try to put the different food items into their "crops" (cups) using the different tools, but not to use their fingers. Present each child/group with a plate holding an assortment of food items and allow them to freely explore the options. Do some tools work better than others? Brainstorm about what might be other challenging foods that birds might eat. How would you eat an oyster or a snail without hands? How would you eat a fish without dropping it? What other types of tools might be helpful?

Handling time:

Introduce the idea of "handling time," that is the amount of time it takes to pick up, process and eat a particular food item. Using a single tool and a timer, see how many pieces of a particular food they can get into their crops (cups) in a short period of time, such as a minute. Try other kinds of food for the same length of time. Weigh the amount of each type of food that was gathered to discover which type was most efficient, or resulted in the most food consumed per minute. Graph the results.

Another way to perform this test might be to time how long it takes to pick up a particular number of one type of food item with different tools. For example, how long does it take to pick up 30 raisins with tweezers versus toothpicks?


Have you ever watched a bird drink? Notice how these chickens scoop up water and then tilt their heads back to let the water flow down their throats.

Drinking is also a challenge with a beak. Often the tongue helps. Scientists have recently discovered that hummingbirds have a tongue like a mop that they use to slurp up nectar. If you've ever visited a lorikeet exhibit, you might have seen the brush-like tongues they use to lap nectar.


  • straws
  • spoons
  • new toothbrush
  • juice
  • shallow bowls

Pour the juice into shallow bowl. Compare how easy it is to drink with a straw or spoon versus try to drink by collecting fluid in the bristles of a toothbrush.

2. Bird Craft

One thing that catches your eye about these tropical birds is their colorful feathers. Make a brightly colored bird.


  • craft pom poms (2 sizes, body and head)
  • colorful feathers (available at craft stores)
  • matching color chenille pieces, cut into short lengths for beaks
  • sewing thread
  • white or craft glue
  • scissors

Chose 1 large pom pom for body and one smaller pom pom for the head for each bird. Take a few minutes to study the structure of the feathers. Find two similar feathers for wings and one for a tail. If the feathers are widely different sizes you can trim them with scissors. Choose a section of chenille to serve as a beak. Bend the chenille into a v-shape, if desired, or leave it long to serve as a hummingbird beak.

Glue the head and body together. Set aside to let dry or the head may slip when adding other elements. If you are doing a flock of birds, you can glue some while others are drying. Put a bit of glue on the hard tip of each feather (where it attached to the bird in real life) and insert it into the body on either side to form wings. Add glue to the hard tip of the tail feather and insert it on the opposite side from the head. Finally add some glue to the tip of the chenille and add to front of head, taking care not to move the wings and tail. Allow to dry.

Once dry, tie a length of thread around the body and hang up. You can create mobiles or flocks of birds or use them as puppets.

3. Bird homes and rainforest layers

The rainforest is divided into layers.

The emergent layer consists of the very tallest trees that push up through the canopy.

The canopy is the dense layer of treetops.

Under the canopy there may be little light. Wherever light passes through the canopy, young trees, shrubs and vines can grow. The forest floor is also teeming with life.

Birds like the hoatzin use the trees of the rainforest for homes and food.

Many birds live in the canopy layer of the rainforest, although some nest in the shrubs and vines of the understory. Ant birds follow army ant swarms running over the forest floor, catching insects and other arthropods chased up by the approaching ants.

Project:  Chose a rainforest bird that interests you and find out where it lives in the rainforest. Does it nest in trees in the canopy or shrubs in the understory? Where does it find food?

Prepare a short report and share what you have found out with others.

Macaws by Cecilia Pinto McCarthy

Reading level: Ages 4 and up
Library Binding: 24 pages
Publisher: Capstone Press (August 1, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 142966049X
ISBN-13: 978-1429660495

Rain Forest Life by Janine Scott

Reading level: Ages 4 and up
Paperback: 24 pages
Publisher: Capstone Press (August 1, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1429671521
ISBN-13: 978-1429671521

Books were provided by publisher for review purposes.

See our growing list of children's books about birds at Science Books for Kids.


Our science fun this week is inspired by the book Seabird in the Forest:  Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, written and illustrated by Joan Dunning (the link goes to a longer review).

This nonfiction picture book tells the incredible story of the marbled murrelet, a tiny seabird that searches deep in old forests to find a place to nest in a large tree. Once they build the nest, incubate the eggs and the eggs hatch, the parent murrelets fly all the way to the ocean to catch fish for their nestlings. They bring the fish back to the tree, a journey that may be as long as one hundred miles per trip.

The fact that murrelets nest in old-growth trees was only discovered recently, after all who would think of looking for a seabird nesting in a big tree?

Activity:  Investigate what sorts of animals live in a tree in your neighborhood.


  • notebook
  • pencil
  • binoculars (if available)
  • camera to record observations (if available)
  • field guides to help you identify animals

Pick a tree in your yard, or nearby, to study. If you can, try to identify the tree. Go out each day for fifteen minutes. Slowly approach the tree looking for birds and squirrels first. Listen and look through your binoculars. Once you write down all the birds and squirrels that you see in the tree, then get closer and look for insects and spiders. Try to figure out what they are and what they are doing. Do this for one week. Or even better go out in the morning for ten minutes and the evening for ten minutes. Do you find different animals at different times of day?  After you are done, count how many animals use the tree.

Here is a list of some of the animals we found in our desert willow tree, Chilopsis linearis:

We chose the desert willow tree because it flowers most of the summer, supplying nectar and pollen for many visitors.



Some animals that visit the flowers include,

carpenter bees like this one,

honey bees, flies,

green june beetles, hummingbirds,

verdins, and lesser goldfinches.

The lesser goldfinches might be taking nectar, but they also peck around the buds, perhaps looking for insects.

Although many birds perch in the branches to preen,

or to wipe their beaks like this house finch is doing, no birds have ever nested in the willow. Perhaps the foliage is too sparse to provide a good cover for a nest.

A few insects use the leaves for food.

We think these eggs hatched into...

this large caterpillar, which will become a Manduca rustica moth..

Several kinds of birds like the seeds.


The trunk of the tree serves as a home for tiny ants that look for food (forage) around the flowers.

It is likely that the roots provide food for insects too, such as cicada grubs.

Of course, all the insects that feed on the willow may also serve as food for other animals. I suspect the verdins and the hummingbirds both feed on the small flies that are attracted to the flowers.

It seems like a whole community of animals depend on our desert willow for their livelihood.

How many animals do you think you will find on your tree?

If you try this project, we'd love to hear what you discover.