If there is a bright side to the COVID-19 crisis, it is the gift of time that we’ve been given. Why not use it to reconnect with nature and, in the process, celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day? With schools now closed, many families are looking for ideas to keep the children entertained and hopefully learn something, too. To help, I have pulled together some simple nature activities you can enjoy in your own backyard, at nearby parks, or maybe on a nearby local rail-trail. Most of what I’ve chosen involves birds, but I’ve also added a few more general activities that can be done on any outing or even at home.
Learn backyard bird songs
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 has been swept away by her suitor and nesting has begun, the male’s song means something different. It’s now meant to warn other males of the same species not to get any ideas. It might translate as something like “Hey! This piece of real estate and the female residing here are already taken, so back off buddy!”
Knowing common bird songs and calls provides a great deal of satisfaction. It’s wonderful to hear the expected birds, in the expected habitat, at the expected time of year. And, with just a little practice, the songs are easy to learn. For me, the easiest way is 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. Other kinds of mnemonics compare a given song to something else such as a creaking door or rusty clothesline. You can find mnemonicsonline by Googling “Fernbank mnemonics” or even make up your own.
To get started, I suggest downloading the free Merlin bird app, which provides photos, descriptions, range maps, and vocalizations (songs and calls) of all of Canada’s birds. Two other excellent resources are allaboutbirds.org and YouTube. Also, if you go to birdscanada.org, you can create a photo guide of common birds in any region of Canada at a given time of year. Just click on “Discover Birds” and then “Birds in Your Region”. A fun and easy family activity is to play a given bird song and challenge each other to name which bird is singing.
You might also want to record a series of songs from your computer onto your phone, using the voice recorder. You can then listen to them regularly and try to name them. When you are are outside, try to track down the bird and watch it as it sings. You can also record a bird singing with your phone and use the recordings at All About Birds or on Merlin to identify it.
Birds don’t only sing, of course. They also make calls. Just remember that songs tend to be longer, more complex, and generally more musical. They are associated with territory and courtship. Calls, on the other hand, serve purposes such as danger warnings orkeeping members of a flock in contact. A chickadee’s call is the somewhat harsh “Chick-a-dee-dee”, while its song is a mellow, whistled “Fee-bee-bee” or “Hi-sweet-ee”. Here’s some more mnemonics of common April birds to get you started.
Mourning dove: “There’s nothing to do” (slow, deep and descending)
American goldfinch: “Chip-chip-chip-chickaree” (bright, fast)
White-throated sparrow: “Sweet Canada-Canada” (slow, high whistle)
Northern cardinal: “Cheer! cheer! birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy” (loud, lots of variation)
Song sparrow: “Maids-maids-maids-put-on-the tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” (jumbled and complex)
Chipping sparrow: A long series of mechanical chips, sounding a bit like a sewing machine.
Red-winged blackbird: “Konk-er-eee” (tinny)
A non-identification bird walk
Rather than worrying too much about names, it can be fun for kids to simply focus on bird movement, location, behaviour, size, and colour. This approach is more like a scavenger hunt. All you’ll need is a pencil and a checklist. Some items for the list could include a bird walking, hopping, soaring, flying in a straight line, swimming, perched in a tree, perched on a wire, perched on a building, in a flock, singing or calling, and eating. You might also want to add: a small (sparrow-size) bird, a medium (robin-size) bird, a big (crow-size) bird, a bird that’s all one colour, a bird with spots, and a bird with stripes. The possibilities for the checklist are endless.
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 make a short video. 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.
Be a bird magnet
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if just like the Pied Piper, you could call birds like chickadees and nuthatches to come to you – maybe as close as a metre away? Here’s how you do it. Whenever you hear chickadees or other small birds calling – even in your own backyard – position yourself near some trees and begin to make loud “pishing” noises. Pishing consists of taking a deep breath and making the sound “shhhh” but adding a “p” in front of it. You simply repeat “pshhhh” nine or ten times in a series, stop to catch your breath, and then do it again. Be patient, because you may need to keep it up for a minute or two before you get a response. You may also want to try increasing or decreasing the volume of your pishing. Chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, and woodpeckers are especially receptive to these sounds, but be patient. Why pishing works so well with some species but not others is still a bit of a mystery. Suffice it to say that some birds are just curious. To see and hear my own pishing in action – and the huge response – go to YouTube and search “Pishing in fall warblers”.
Engage your senses
Spring is a wonderful time to “plug in” to nature through our senses. This is our green conduit – 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 hike or walk around the yard, encourage everyone to selectively harvest tiny “bits” of nature and place them in the cup: a bud, some conifer needles, a flake of bark, some pine gum, etc. When you have four or five items, stir them with a twig. This is your smell cocktail! Give your creation a name – perhaps “springtopia” – and let everyone smell each other’s concoction.
- Sound maps: Cut out 4- by 6-inch cards and grab some pencils. Choose a site and time of day – morning is best – that offers a variety of natural sounds. Place an X in the middle of the card. Tell the kids that the card is a map, and the X is where they’ll be sitting. Each time they hear a sound, they should mark its location (direction and distance from the X) and represent it with a simple symbol (e.g., a musical note for bird song, a number after the note for each different bird). Show the kids how to cup their hands behind their ears to amplify distant sounds. Have them listen and mark their cards for 5-10 minutes, depending on age. Afterwards, discuss what they heard.
- 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.
A head start on spring
Can’t wait for the greenery and blossoms of spring? Try cutting some 8- to 12-inch twigs for forcing indoors.Many shrubs and trees (e.g., forsythia, willow, dogwood, apple) are just waiting for warm weather to leaf out or even burst into bloom. Just put the twigs in a vase of water and set them in a sunny window. Within a few days, you should see leaves and sometimes flowers emerging. Be sure to watch closely to see what comes out of each bud – a leaf? a flower? both?
A spring scavenger hunt
Kids love scavenger hunts. Here is an easy one for late April and May. Remind the kids that all the items must be in nature.
____ 3 flowers of different colours
____ Buds opening on a twig
____ Tree seeds like a cone or maple key
____ Lichen or moss on a tree
____ New plants poking through the soil
____ 3 leaves of different shades of green
____ A leaf that has been partly eaten by insects
____ A worm
____ The smell of soil
____ The smell of decaying leaves
____ The smell of fresh grass
____ Something soft or smooth
____ Something rough
____ An ant
____ A squirrel
____ A bird flying over
____ A bird chirping or calling
____ A robin