What Makes a Bird a Bird?

Ask a scientist to describe a bird and the answer may include a detailed description of a bird’s appearance or anatomy. Scientifically speaking, birds are vertebrates (they have a backbone) with feathers and wings. They have beaks or bills and they breathe with lungs. They are oviparous (they lay eggs) and have four limbs. Some scientists may even describe birds as modern-day dinosaurs!

Ask a birder to describe a bird and the answer may be more poetic in naturea description of the feelings that birding instills in avid bird enthusiasts. Emily Dickinson once wrote,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all…

Interest in bird watching has completely soared over the years. It is one of the fastest growing hobbies. Spend an afternoon watching the acrobatic dances of Black-capped chickadees or the hammering of a Downy woodpecker and the allure of bird-watching becomes clear. Birds are colourful, masterful musicians.

Bird watching is a great way to connect with nature. It builds patience and concentration. For young budding scientists, this may be the first step in piquing an interest in biology or ornithology (bird biology).

A Birder or a Bird watcher?

Two children standing in a forest, observing the sky and pointing at what they find.

A birder is someone who enjoys looking at birds in their natural habitats. Birders observe birds carefully, noting size, shape, colour, pattern, behaviour, and habitat. Birders often track the number of birds they see each year. It’s not uncommon for birders to take long distance trips just for the sole purpose of seeing a new bird.

Enjoying birds, however, does not require binoculars or long road trips. You can simply start by bird watching: using your eyes and ears to see and hear these magnificent creatures. Looking through your window is often the best place to start!

A child observing birds through a window in their house.

Backyard Bird Watch

Use BACKYARD BIRD Watch to get started! Print these photos of common Canadian birds and attach the pictures to a window where kids can easily see bird houses, feeders, baths, puddles, shrubs, or trees–in other words, places where birds will frequently stop for food, water, or rest. When your child sees and identifies the bird, they can mark the appropriate photo. Alternatively, attach the bird photos to a clipboard and head outdoors!

This list is comprised of common birds across Canada–such as the American Goldfinch and the Red-winged Blackbird–but each province has their own unique birds. Personalize your tracking sheet based on where you live. If you live in Ontario, you may also want to print the iconic Red Cardinal, or perhaps if you reside in British Columbia you may want to include the photo of the Canada Jay. Choose birds that frequent your area so that there is a good chance the desired birds will be spotted.

Bird Song

Often while bird watching, you will hear the birds well before you see them. Chirps, whistles, and melodies fill the air. If you start to pay attention to the sounds with more purpose you will soon be able to identify the music-makers.

Birders have created phrases to help identify bird calls. The call of a Black-Capped Chickadee sounds like it’s  saying, “Cheeese-burger, cheeese-burger”. A Barred Owl sings, “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?” Mnemonics can make for a fun afternoon out on a nature walk.

There are also excellent apps, such as Audubon and Song Sleuth, that can help you identify bird calls while out on a nature walk.

Provide Nesting Material for Birds

A bag of bird nesting material hanging from a lawn decoration.

Birds build their nests in the spring, making this prime time to watch nest-building. Robins can be seen gathering small twigs and bits of grass, weaving them together to form a bowl-shaped nest that will carry the blue eggs.

You can encourage birds to build nests in your backyard by providing valuable nesting material. Items should be natural, bio-degradable, and pesticide-free.

Fill mesh bags, (bags that hold onions, avocadoes or lemons are good bags to use) with items such as:

  • Dog hair (with no tick medication)
  • Moss
  • Dead leaves
  • Dry grass
  • Cattail fluff
  • Twigs about 10 cm long

Avoid:

  • Human hair (it is often too thin and long and can tangle the birds)
  • Yarn or string
  • Dryer lint (it will absorb water)
  • Synthetic fibres

Display the bags where they can easily be found and sheltered from the rain.

Swallows and Robins also need mud to build their nests. Consider leaving exposed soil in your yard. Pollinators, like bees and butterflies, also love the mud.

Bird Education and Enrichment

#DYK that owls eat small animals, like rodents and voles? They swallow their meals whole. Owls, however, are unable to digest hair and bones, so they cough it back up. This regurgitated mass is called an owl pellet. Finding an owl pellet under a tree is a good sign that an owl is roosting or sleeping nearby.

Scientists dissect owl pellets and by carefully examining the bones, they can decipher what the owl had for lunch!

Ways to enrich your child’s interest in birds:

  1. Book Scientists in School’s hands-on virtual workshop, “Hooo’s in the Owl Pellet.” Students become biologists by dissecting sterilized owl pellets, sorting, and identifying bones in order to investigate the diet of an owl.
  2. Join our virtual 4-week STEM club
  3. Explore our video series, “Discover Your STEM Career”, and learn more about exciting careers for bird enthusiasts.