Spending time outdoors in winter is not always easy. It’s cold and windy, the playground and monkey bars icy and forbidding. And putting on all of those layers makes even the shortest walk outside an exercise in patience and logistics. It’s easy to take a hard pass on the effort, and so sometimes what you really need is a great reason to get outside. Something like, say, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).
A community science project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and supported by Audubon and other organizations, the event, which takes place Feb 16-19, tracks bird populations across the world. (This year’s GBBC also happens to be part of the Year of the Bird, a year-long celebration of birds supported by Audubon and its partners that you and your kid can also take part in.) You don’t have to travel far to join a count, or you can strike out to find birds on your own. Whichever you choose, here are some tips for turning birding into a family adventure, even during the grimmest and most frostbitten of months.
Make It A Game
Before you head out, buy a field guide that’s geared toward kids, then browse it to see which of the really brightly colored birds hang around your area. Pick easy colors, like red (Cardinals), black (Canada Geese), green (Mallards), blue (Blue Jays), white (swans) or brown (everybody else). Also pay attention to how the birds might sound. Even if your kids can’t frequently see birds, they can hear them.
To gamify birding, hand out a reward (stickers, rocks to throw in the pond) for each bird seen or heard. The key here is not to make the game about being “right” or “wrong.” Rather, the goal is to encourage your kids to pay attention to the world around them and recognize when that world includes birds. It’s up to you, dad, to provide a plausible ID. (And for an assist with that, you can use Audubon’s online field guide —also available in Spanish—or download the free Audubon Bird Guide App.)
Aim for Birds You Can’t Miss
Don’t start your kids on hard-to-find birds that are tiny, hide in trees, and move fast. Instead, take them to a pond or lake or, if there’s one easily accessible, a wetland. The point is that waterbirds — ducks, geese, herons, and the like — are big and they’re slow. They just sit out there in the middle of the water, paddling around looking for weeds and fish. You can make such birding as sophisticated as you want (good luck trying to differentiate between female Cinnamon Teals, Green-winged Teals, and Blue-winged Teals), but you really can’t go wrong just by teaching kids the difference between ducks and geese (the latter have really long necks).
Explore New Destinations
Give your kids some measure of independence and agency by letting them choose where you’ll go birding. Pull up (or out, if you’re old-school) a map of the area and discuss together where the next outing will be. If you do a bit of research beforehand, you’ll be able to highlight for them the places where it will be easy to see birds. But even if you don’t see any birds once you get to the destination of choice, you can still listen for them and point out any critters flying overhead.
Go to a Raptor Demonstration
One of the easiest ways to get kids to fall in love with birds, and want to go out to see more of them, is to introduce them up close and personal. Lots of nature centers have hawks or owls that have been injured and are therefore not releasable. Instead, they are avian ambassadors to the rest of the world. Trust us: As cool as hawks look flying overhead, they’re 75 times more imposing and impressive up close. Both you and your kids will walk away awestruck.
Get a Bird Feeder
Sometimes, it’s just too cold to go outside — but that shouldn’t stop you from joining the Great Backyard Bird Count. Tallying which birds show up at your feeders while clutching a mug of hot chocolate is as legitimate a pursuit as barreling through the woods with a half-frozen child in tow. In addition to just looking at some of the regular feeder visitors (Blue Jays! Woodpeckers! Chickadees!), you and your kids can set up brackets for who would win an avian food fight.