Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

How to get your kids started on backyard birding

If you have a window, you can go birding.

“The great thing about birding is you can do it any time, any place, anywhere,” says Hanae Bettencourt, associate education manager for Seattle Audubon.

It’s just a matter of noticing. To get kids started on observing birds, find a spot — outdoors if possible — and get comfortable, “with calm bodies,” Bettencourt says, and then stay quiet and look all around, at the trees, the bushes, the ground, and the sky. If you find a bird, watch what it is doing.

It isn’t necessary to be able to identify birds to watch them, she says.

“Because birds are there, they are doing what they are doing. A lot of them are nesting, all the male birds are singing and establishing their territory, a lot of them are in their beautiful breeding plumage, a lot of them already have babies, there’s just so much to see and so much to hear, you don’t need to know that that bird that’s doing this crazy thing is a junco, or that bird at the top of the tree is a warbler, you don’t need to know those things to watch them and be fascinated by them.”

If kids want to figure out how to identify what they see, they should take note of the size and shape of the bird, the shape of the beak, and the colors on its feathers, and they should listen to any sounds it is making.

Then it’s time to check a field guide. The best book to use with children is the Stokes Beginner’s Guilde to Birds: Western Region, a paperback that sorts birds by color. Bettencourt also likes Birds of Seattle and Puget Sound by Chris Fisher.

Emily Bishton, a longtime environmental educator, says that while the Stoke’s Beginner’s Guide is the best for young beginners, any field guide to birds can be helpful.

“Any bird book that is a good ID book of any kind would keep kids interested, because even if they’re not seeing the birds in the book, helps them develop and stay excited about the process,” she says. “Then when they see any bird that’s in the book it’s very special, even if it’s just a chickadee, if they can find it in a bird book.”

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a free app called Merlin Bird ID that Bishton finds useful for zeroing in on an identification.

Listening for birds and learning some calls is also useful, because it is a lot easier to hear most neighborhood birds than it is to see them. You can find recordings of local bird songs on, but don’t play the songs out of doors, because they might scare or stress out the birds. Instead, use headphones or listen to them inside.

You could also take steps to make your yard more inviting to birds. Among the things to do: keep your cat indoors, plant lots of native plants, put out water (an upside-down garbage-can lid can make a great bird-bath, Bishton says), and put up feeders.

Binoculars, while unnecessary, can be fun for kids, though it may take a few tries before they know how to use them. (The way you do it is you look at the bird, and without moving your eyes, bring the binoculars in front of your face. It should be obvious if it has succeeded; kids are usually amazed at how big the bird suddenly got.)

Seattle Audubon has a web page for youth called the Rookery, which has useful things such as a bingo cards for birds spotted, and for bird behaviors observed, as well a list of the 25 most common backyard birds. People can also participate in Seattle Audubon’s Big Backyard Birdathon, a 2-month-long challenge in which people can collect pledge money for each the species they’ve seen. As of April 16, participants had spotted 92 species around Seattle.

Related: 14 wonderful animals you can spot in your backyard in spring

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Fiona Cohen