This week I had the privilege of working with Claire Marsden, a local RSPB officer to provide twilight training for local Early Years practitioners. This post provides some ideas and activities for developing children’s interests in birds. It is a shared effort between Claire and myself based upon the course contents and suggestions from the participants – Thank you very much for your ideas and input!
Birds are one of the most satisfying forms of wildlife because they are easy to find and observe unlike most native mammals. Most school grounds in Britain will have a variety of feathered visitors after every break and lunch time who are ready to pick over the leftover snacks and crumbs dropped on the ground. Thus children notice this and it’s interesting to hear their thoughts and opinions as to whether these visitors are welcome – or not!
Another starting point may be a child’s story from home or a book about a bird chosen to be read aloud during story time. Occasionally there are exciting bird happenings at school such as a nesting bird which can spark an interest.
From these discussions, there can be many possible practical outcomes, e.g.
- Watching birds, in the school grounds and local area
- Feeding birds and providing water
- Making the outdoor space or school grounds a bird friendly place
It is worth finding out if any families are members of the RSPB or who are keen bird watchers. Perhaps they will be willing to visit the nursery, share their tips and be interviewed. Likewise there may be people in the local area that keep birds, e.g. ducks, geese, hens, pigeons, doves, budgies, etc. It may be possible for a group of interested children to visit.
It is also worth sharing and celebrating two events. The RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch happens on the last weekend of January and is an opportunity for families to enjoy bird watching at home and contribute to the nationwide survey. The RSPB Feed the Birds day happens at the end of October as a timely reminder to remember our feathered friends over the winter.
Bird activities indoors
- Make bird seed cake and other tasty treats for birds. Wit a group of children, you can create a sequencing book of instructions about how to do this. Use similar ingredients to bake a cake or other recipe for children to eat at snack
- In spring incubate eggs and let the children witness the chickens hatching. Many nurseries now keep hens
- Play a variety of bird identification games. If your school registers with the RSPB Big or Little Schools Bird Watch then these can be accessed online and you will be sent a helpful pack in November
- Have a variety of books, poems, rhymes and songs available on bird themes
- Have bird sounds available for children to hear. Encourage the children to think of ways of copying or making the same sound with different musical instruments
- If you have a window at a suitable height, then set up an indoor bird hide. This works well if you can have a bird feeding station close to the window
- Enjoy various art activities around birds from using feathers, to drawing pictures of birds and creating interesting sculptures.
- Consider creating life-size outlines of different birds. This gives children a better idea just how big an eagle’s wingspan actually is!
- If your children are older, then more substantial projects can happen. Have a look at the Ducks at The Coombes School post
- Add various bird artefacts to the nature table for children to freely examine and explore
Bird activities in the outdoor space
- Get some hay, fleece (sheep’s wool), dried grass, dog hair, sticks and twigs so that children can create their own nests – big enough to fit themselves or small enough for a soft toy bird
- Let the children build a bird watching hide. Offer a range of materials and ensure that there’s a bird feeding station or nesting station nearby if this helps. Encourage the children to think about signs and information needed
- Undertake some of these feather activities outside.
- Create bird watching packs for children to use in the hide including: binoculars (homemade ones from decorated toilet tubes are popular), identification sheets (these could be hung up inside the hide), recording sheets on a clipboard, a dark coloured or camouflage jacket to wear
- Weave natural materials into netting as beautifully demonstrated in a photo in this blog post of Mandy Tulloch during one of her Mud Pie sessions. These make super camouflage capes
- Make bird splat paintings on a big sheet or piece of dark coloured paper on the ground! Look at the colours in bird splat (but do not touch) and let the children try mixing up paints to create the colours seen. Challenge the children to make realistic splats
- Show children how to make bird gliders to fly outside. Sheets are available from the Nature Detectives website
- Make up nest boxes. Ask a local RSPB officer for advice on the most suitable types and locations. Different species of bird need different types of boxes in different places. There is also lots of advice on helping birds on the RSPB website. Wood Recyclability near Ellon has pre-cut packs for children to hammer together
- Remove litter from your outdoor space and school grounds as this can harm birds and other wildlife
- There are several different games you can play to help children learn how to approach and behave in a bird hide. It can also be fun for children to mimic different habits and characteristics of certain birds such as how they hear, see and move
- Have a range of binoculars – homemade or real – for the children to experiment with. In the past I’ve given children a choice over what equipment to use and very often children prefer the homemade binoculars
- Join in the RSPB Little Schools’ Bird Watch in January of every year. There is a free Early Years Schools Pack available from the website
- Have fun with identifying and counting the numbers and species of birds which come and visit. It can be interesting to see how the numbers grow as more birds learn that food is there for them
Feeding birds and providing water
There are lots of options for feeding birds aside from providing commercially bought food. Children can have fun designing their own bird food recipes from ingredients such as suet, seeds, breadcrumbs (preferably wholemeal), apples, pears, brambles and plums (British fruit), cheese, cooked rice, soaked raisins. It can also be fun to provide snack food that contains some of these ingredients too!
Bird activities off-site
Where do the children think that they will see most birds? Brainstorm different ideas. Show the children photos of different places in the local area. Let them chose which place to visit. There may be a nearby RSPB or nature reserve to which you can take the children. Make sure children know how to behave and approach a hide quietly before the visit. Afterwards compare the birds you have seen off-site with those that visit your school or setting.
Making the outdoor space a bird friendly place
A good starting point here is to ask children what they think birds need to stay alive. This might produce a variety of opinions. However it is likely that food, water and shelter will come up in some shape or form. Show the children photos of different garden birds and talk about where they like to nest and the food they like to eat.
From here, take a basket of toy birds or puppets outside and ask each child within a small group to put a bird in the place they think would be the best place for the bird to build a nest. Do not worry if your outdoor space is completely barren of plants. Ask the children to explain their decision to the rest of the group. Encourage them to consider the need for shelter, food and water.
Birds need a biodiverse environment. The more native plants and trees that are present the better. These plants attract insects and bugs which the birds can eat. The Wee Green Fingers blog post gives suggestions here. Forvie Tree Nursery, near Peterhead, run by Bob Davis can provide advice and trees for a very good price locally. Other measures schools and nurseries can take include:
1) Planting fruit trees and shrubs. As well as providing snack food and foraging opportunities for children, birds also appreciate the insects, fruit and berries.
2) Ensuring there is a supply of rainwater for birds to drink and bathe in. Ponds are best and can be a variety of sizes. See the blog post about Ponds in Schools for more information. Water butts are also helpful for collecting rain water. Children can experiment with seeing which types of bowls and water containers birds prefer.
3) Wetland areas are also helpful and there are many beautiful marsh-loving plants which grow here. This is a great project for naturally boggy areas of the school grounds.
4) Long grass is good for insects. Make arrangements with the landscaping services to leave swarths of grass to grow long. This can be done in interesting curves and shapes which can add interest to an outdoor space. Meadows are beautiful and can be created with careful cutting regimes. If your school grounds have enthusiastic mowers, then consider fencing off the areas of long grass in order to keep them long.
5) Log piles. Whilst there is a growing trend for creating minibeast hotels which is a very interesting project for re-using unwanted items, nothing beats a good old-fashioned log pile. Have big logs in the centre which should remain undisturbed with smaller logs available around the edges for children to turnover and look under.
6) Compost bins work well as they create a plentiful supply of worms which many garden birds enjoy.
7) Wildlife corridors are hedges, trees and plants that link up natural patches. A log pile in a container in the middle of a piece of tarmac will not get many insects coming along. But if it is positioned under a tree or beside a hedge then this will be more successful. It is also important for bird feeding stations to be located near a hedge, tree or shrub that can provide shelter and protection from predators such as cats.
8) Grow wildflowers. Generally small plant plugs grow more successfully especially in places where the seeds are competing with grass. Seeds are best scattered on rough soil rather than smoothly raked borders. Mixed wildflower seed packs are also available but some people find that these are not as successful as sowing single types of flower. The Wee Green Fingers blog post gives suppliers of native seeds and plant plugs.
9) Garden organically. Try to avoid using chemicals. There are many clever ways to deal with pests and issues that do not use pesticides, etc.
Tricky bird issues
The RSPB run a wildlife enquiries line which anyone can use to ask questions about issues or matters arising around birds. Phone: 01767 693690. Here’s some common examples:
Gulls are a nuisance in our playground
Take a problem solving approach. Ask the children why the gulls are there and talk about their adaptability. Next ask the children what they can do about the gulls? Very often gulls are in grounds because of the leftover food and litter from playtimes. It’s also interesting in that herring gulls who often frequent school grounds are on the UK red list owing to their recent rapid decline in numbers. Thus it is worth thinking about the role of schools in conserving this species.
A bird has made a nest in our school grounds in an unsuitable place
If appropriate, make some signs warning people to avoid the area until the chicks have hatched. If that is not possible, the next will probably fail due to disturbance, and the birds may try to nest again elsewhere.
What do we do if we find a bird’s egg on the ground?
If it is one the ground, it will either be broken or will have become too cold to hatch. Tidy it away, or leave it for other birds to scavenge.
Can we touch or take eggs from a nest?
All birds, their nests and their eggs are protected by the law. So, it is illegal to disturb, destroy or take nests from an active nest. Once the chicks have fledged from the nest, and it is no longer being used, it is possible to go and investigate the nest.
Are feathers safe to collect outside?
Yes! It is fascinating to collect different feathers to examine them and find out how they work. There are also some fun activities you can do with feathers. always remember to wash your hands after any outdoor foraging.
Do we only feed the birds in winter?
Winter is when the birds need our help most as their natural food sources become scarce, but it is perfectly alright to feed birds all the year round. Always remember to have a source of fresh water available too.
Where can I find out more information?The RSPB website has lots of information and advice about birds or you can phone your local RSPB office.
- For nurseries there is an Early Years section on the RSPB website.
- Bird Books for Very Young Children is a listmania on Amazon UK with a range of mainly story books where the main characters are birds
- The RSPB shop has a wide range of feeders, tables, bird food, books, singing soft birds, etc
- Have a look at the RSPB Education Resources Catalogue – but remember to download the order form as not all the resources are free.
- Have a look at the British bird finger puppets on the British grid lovers website
- Buy hay and other natural nesting material from the Cosy Catalogue, tel 01332 370152. There’s also very cheap camouflage netting and a variety of den building props
- The Nature Detectives website has free downloads including bird spotting sheets
- Some supermarkets have schemes which enable schools to exchange vouchers for bird related resources (amongst other things)
- There are several companies which can provide eggs for incubating and even collect the chicks afterwards. Have a look at the Happy Chicken Company website for more details
If you have thoughts, ideas, activities or blog posts that relate to birds, please do comment and add relevant links.