Science and Teaching for Field Instructors


Tale from the Field: Birding on the Trail

By Ian Gledhill

At Shady Creek Outdoor School, it is not uncommon to have a kid screaming with delight when they identify a bird. Birding is fun because birds are pretty, it’s science, a competition, and just like Pokemon, you gotta catch ‘em all. We teach that birds are nature’s storytellers, and we give kids the tools to learn the stories behind the birds that surround them every day.

While birding has always been a part of the program, we have updated this portion of the class by filtering the lesson through the learning cycle. We emphasize the science and the fun inherent in birding while helping the students create their own meaning through direct experience.


The right materials can make or break a good birding class.

  • First, we use pictures of birds and bird mounts (taxidermied birds) before birding. These props are ideal for learning bird identification and beginning scientific discussion amongst the students. Something to consider is that the pictures and mounts need to be birds in the bird book you are using. For example, you won’t find a Chinstrap Penguin in a field guide to North American birds, but you will find lots of pictures of Chinstrap Penguins on the internet.
  • The most important thing for a bird class is background knowledge. Knowing at least the ten most common birds in your area is crucial to scaffold student’s identification. It also helps build your personal enthusiasm for the animals. This can be overwhelming, but don’t worry! There’s help. Cornell Lab of Ornithology created a free birding app called Merlin Bird I.D. This app uses your location and your observations to get you to a possible identification. This leads to the second necessity of the class.
  • Bird books are essential. We like to have one for every two kids, but we usually take less out while birding because they can be a bother to carry and multiple kids can use the same book. For the Sierra Nevada and coastal California, my favorite bird guide for kids is John Muir Laws’ Birds of the Sierra Nevada. It’s organized by color, and it is specific to California so there are way fewer birds to choose from. Other than that, I like the Sibley and National Geographic guides. For personal use, you can get their smartphone app counterparts which include the sounds and can help you organize the birds by region.
  • Bird feeding stations help bring the birds closer. Having a bird blind, a hummingbird feeder, or even a finch sock will give the kids the best chance for a good view.
  • Binoculars are great if the binoculars are good quality. Poor binoculars are often worse than using your eyes. If you have to choose, get feeding stations instead of binoculars. Good binoculars help engage kids in the experience of observing a bird. A pretty bird in good light through binoculars is jaw-dropping. The downside is that binoculars are expensive. But there is a grant available through my friends at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for educators: The binoculars you can get are exceptional for the price point and I recommend them without the grant if you can afford them. There is a lot to learn about optics, but as a general rule: binoculars get exponentially better up to about $600. After that the improvements are minimal. I recommend Celestron binoculars on the very cheap end. Look for those that are waterproof and fog proof. You can find them for around $50 a pair.
  • I use my personal spotting scope for my bird classes. I like it because it gives kids a great view of beautiful birds. I also have an attachment for my phone that I use to take pictures and videos of the birds (check out my YouTube channel to see videos of students identifying birds). The phone attachment helps in identification and recording scientific discussions amongst the kids. Birding is a great way to show how cell phones can be a tool as opposed to a toy.

The Birding Portion of Shady Creek Birds Class

The objective of this portion of the class is that students will be able to make scientific arguments based on evidence. This portion of the class fits into a larger learning cycle that includes exploring our bird room before and our raptor center afterward.

  • Invitation/Exploration– Hand out John Muir Laws’ guides to birds. Ask them, “How is this book organized?” This is why I like Laws’ guide to birds: it is easy for the kids to tell that it is organized by color with some waterfowl mixed in there.
  • Concept Invention– Show a picture of a local bird or use a bird to create an argument. We show a California Scrub-jay (No longer Western Scrub-jay!) and call it a Tree Swallow or something similar that is blue. Students work in pairs to find evidence to agree or disagree with the argument. They have discussions with their partner, and then with the groups surrounding them seeing if they agree or disagree with the argument.

After students come to an agreement about the correct identification of the bird, and before taking them outside, it’s important to model using binoculars and guidelines for use. Using binoculars is a skill.

One of the most important things to occur is next: we build enthusiasm for birding by telling them that there is a record number of species recorded on this day in history by students at Shady Creek Outdoor School! This is an arbitrary number based on the number of species you are likely to see. The reason for this is two-fold: 1. It’s fun to break records and it engages the kids. 2. Listing and competition is a huge draw for birders. Competition is one of the primary ways Cornell Lab of Ornithology gets citizen scientists to upload their data to eBird, the largest citizen science database on the planet.

After enthusiasm is built, we hand out binoculars and go birding.

  • Application– When the kids notice a bird, we encourage them not to simply yell out “Bird!” Instead, we ask, “What do you notice?” Encourage kids to make as many observations as they can before they look to the bird book and before the bird flies away. This is an important skill for all birders, not just kids. If the kids identify the bird, we like to have them confer with other kids in the class to see if their identification was the same. If all groups agree, a second question could be, “Is there any other bird this bird could be?” and, “Are you sure?” Once the students gather enough evidence to convince you, then you mark the species as identified.

During birding, it’s important to take the time to marvel at the beauty of any birds you see. Bluebirds are pretty (even Jays!), brown birds are handsome, and Turkey Vultures are cool. Hopefully, the students break the arbitrary record, but if they don’t these experiences are rewarding nonetheless. Check it out in the video below.

  • Reflection– Review the list of birds that were identified with the students. Accentuate their food sources, migration patterns (if applicable), and other facts that are relevant to the habitat. The guiding question of our entire class is, “What can you learn about a habitat by studying birds?” At this point in time, students discuss the guiding question in Think-Pair-Shares and Turn & Talks.

I am happy to share the pocket edition of our birds class with anybody who is interested. I am also happy to answer any questions people have about materials and the reasoning behind activities, or more bird-related resources and lessons. Finally, I am always open to feedback and suggestions for improvement. Get in touch with the BEETLES project ( to connect.

Check out my YouTube channel to watch more videos of kid bird identification in action.

And, good birding!

Ian “Ibis” Gledhill
Lead Naturalist
Shady Creek Outdoor School
Nevada City, California

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