From bird song games to smell cocktails, here are some fun activities to better engage with nature

Peterborough Examiner  – May 10, 2024 – by Drew Monkman  

With May now upon us, the promise of spring is being fulfilled. Spectacular long-distance migrants like hummingbirds and orioles are arriving, leaves and flowers are bursting out all around us and any hint of winter has been lost in the warmth and sunshine. For anyone who takes pleasure in the wonder of seasonal change, May has no equal. 

This is a wonderful time to spend time outdoors to experience the vitality of nature’s rebirth and renewal. In celebration of spring, I have pulled together some activities you can enjoy on your own, with a friend or with children.

Bird song mnemonics

Have you ever wondered what all those boisterous backyard birds are really singing about?Well, if their melodies could be translated into English, it would be something like this: “I’m a healthy male looking for a mate so together we can raise a family.” Once the female is on the nest, the male’s song might translate as “Hey! This piece of real estate and the female residing here are already taken, so back off, buddy!”

Knowing the common bird songs and calls provides huge satisfaction. It’s like discovering you have neighbours you didn’t know were there. And, with just a little practice, the songs are easy to learn.  For me, the easiest way to remember bird songs is by using a “mnemonic” or memory aid. I like the English translation variety. The American robin, for example, sounds like it’s singing “Cheerily…cheer-up…”. The words suggest the number of syllables and the general tone.

Birds don’t only sing; they also make calls. These short, often harsh vocalizations serve purposes such as danger warnings. A chickadee’s call is the raspy “Chick-a-dee-dee”, while its song is a mellow, whistled “Fee-bee-bee” or “Hi-sweet-ee”.

Here are some other mnemonics of common May birds to get you started. You can find other popular mnemonics by Googling “Fernbank bird song mnemonics”. 

  • Mourning dove: “There’s nothing to do” (slow, deep and descending)
  • Red-eyed vireo: “Look-up, over-here, see-me, up-here” (somewhat robin-like)
  • Northern cardinal: “Cheer! cheer! birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy” (loud, lots of variation)
  • Chipping sparrow: “Chip-chip-chip….” (long, fast trill of evenly spaced mechanical chips)
  • Red-winged blackbird: a tinny-sounding “Konk-er-eee”
  • Common grackle: “Chack! chack!”
  • American crow: “Caw! caw! caw!”
  • Blue jay: “Jay, jay, jay”. Also “Tweedle-dee”, especially in spring.

A simple children’s activity you can try is to challenge kids to make up their own mnemonics for common birds, instead of just using the traditional ones. You can also have children imitate a bird song by a means other than a word mnemonic – maybe by whistling or using some object – while the others try to guess the species.

If you have a large group of kids, you could ask each child (or a pair) to say or sing the mnemonic for a different bird. Ask one child to start and then have the other kids join in with one new species at a time until you have a full orchestra of mnemonic sound! They could then stop singing one species at a time. My students loved doing this. 

From top left clockwise: Northern cardinal, American robin, the Merlin Sound ID app in action, and a “smell cocktail”. Photos by Drew Monkman except the smell cocktail (Jacob Rodenburg)

Merlin Bird ID

If you don’t have it already, I suggest downloading the free Merlin Bird ID app and creating an account. Click on Settings, followed by Bird Packs, and then download the pack called Canada: East. To help you identify a bird, this amazing resource includes sound ID, step by step ID, photo ID, and access to any sound recordings you make. If you click on the Explore tab and search for a given species, you’ll find ID information, photos of males and females, sounds the bird makes, and a year-round range map.

One of the best things about Merlin is its sound ID tool. Rather than just hearing a jumbled cacophony of bird song, this feature provides the identity of the individual songsters. In this way, it changes your entire relationship with birds and their sounds.

Just press the Sound ID button and the app is suddenly “Listening for birds”. A spectrogram (pictures of sound wave patterns) glides by at the top. When a given song or call rings out, a picture and name of the bird appears on the screen, highlighted in yellow. If different species are singing, the identities of the other birds appears as well. Within a few minutes, you’ll often have a whole list of the bird conversations happening around you.

Press the red button to stop the recording. You’ll then have the option to start a new one. If you wish to see and hear a recording again, click on the Identify button at the bottom of the screen and then on “My Sound Recordings”. By tapping on an individual bird in the list, you can go directly to when it was singing. This is a great way to memorize the songs you hear.   

A fun family activity is to play a common bird song from the Explore section of the Merlin app and challenge each other to name which bird is singing. This is another activity I used to do with my students. I provided them with a sheet of mnemonics that we’d previously gone over and then played the song of one of the birds on the list (e.g., American robin). They quickly wrote down which bird they thought was singing and took great pride in making the proper identification.

A version of this activity can be done with Merlin Sound ID as well. One person watches the screen on the phone while the other tries to name the bird that just sang. You can even do this by yourself. Start Sound ID and try to identify the songster without looking at the screen. You can then check the app to see if you were right.    

Camera fun

         Ask your kids to see how many different birds they can photograph, maybe using a smartphone or a point-and-shoot camera. Show them how to zoom in. If a bird is singing, they could also make a short video recording. It doesn’t matter if the bird is actually visible. Who can come back with pictures of the most species or videos of the most different songs? Let the kids try to identify the species in each other’s pictures and videos. 

Engage your senses

         Spring is a wonderful time to “plug in” to nature through our senses. It’s a powerful way to connect children to nature.  

  • Rainbow Colors:  Cut up a variety of paint color samples – especially greys, browns, yellows, oranges and greens – into smaller pieces. Hand out 5-10 pieces to each child. Ask them to try to find natural objects (e.g., grasses, rocks, buds, lichens, bark) that exactly match the colour of each paint sample.    
  •  Smell Cocktail: You will need some small cups and twigs. As you walk through a natural area, encourage everyone to selectively harvest tiny “bits” of nature and place them in the cup (e.g., a bud, some conifer needles, fresh grass, some pine gum, etc.) When you have four or five items, stir and crush  them with a twig. This is your smell cocktail! Give your creation a name – perhaps “springtopia” – and let everyone smell each other’s concoction.  
  • Touch Bag:Give everyone a small paper bag. Ask them to find five or so familiar objects (e.g., different conifer needles, bark, moss, etc.) and to place them in the bag. Taking turns and using only their sense of touch, challenge the kids to identify the objects in each other’s bags.

CO2: A frightening new record   

         The atmospheric carbon dioxide reading for the week ending April 20 was 427.94 parts per million (ppm), compared to 423.96 ppm just one year ago. This is not only a huge year-over-year increase but represents the highest weekly CO2 average in human history – plus millions of years before that.

Atmospheric CO2 is now 50 percent higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution. The annual rate of increase over the past 60 years has been  about 100 times faster than previous natural increases. The ocean has absorbed enough CO2 to increase its acidity by an astounding 30%. Atmospheric CO2 is the primary cause of global heating. See

Drew Monkman

I am a retired teacher, naturalist and writer with a love for all aspects of the natural world, especially as they relate to seasonal change.