Welcome to ON(line)SC's Virtual Learning!
Birds by Ms. Lauren
Ms. Lauren here, and I hope you all have been enjoying our programming this spring!
For me, one of my favorite things about nature is the excitement of finding something new. For that reason, I love the spring! Rain, snow, or sunshine, I know that every day will bring me new plants and animals to discover.
This time of year, my brain is focused on birds. If you've ever woken up at dawn and heard the chorus of different songbirds, or watched the power of an eagle grabbing a fish from the surface of a lake, you might know why. The variation in colors, sounds, and behavior of these animals is remarkable.
Every bird has its own attitude...this one seems to have a lot of it!*
Let's talk a little bit about them, and how you can begin to discover the birds in your own yard!
First, what are some of the things that make a bird a bird? Birds have several things in common.
Let's break down some of these characteristics, taking time to answer a few questions about them.
Vertebrates-These creatures have a backbone, very similar to ours! What other animals have backbones?
Eggs- All birds lay eggs. These hard-shelled structures protect the baby birds as they develop.
How is egg-laying a useful trait for birds? What risks are there in laying eggs?
How do birds protect their eggs and young as they develop?
How do bird eggs differ from reptile (such as snake) and amphibian (such as frog) eggs?
Endothermic- This means that birds are warm-blooded. But what does that really mean? Like us, birds are able to produce their own body heat and keep the same body temperature. To better understand this, think about the average human body temperature. Usually if we're healthy, the temperature inside our body will change only by one or two degrees. This is true in the cold of winter or the heat of summer. Cold-blooded or ectothermic creatures, on the other hand, rely on heat sources around them to change their temperature.
Where do warm-blooded creatures get the energy to heat themselves?
What are some example of cold-blooded creatures? Warm-blooded?
What happens to each group as the weather gets colder or warmer?
Are there any pros and cons to being warm-blooded vs cold-blooded?
Which would you rather be, and why?
Which of these animals is an endotherm? Which is an ectotherm?
Beaks/Bills-Birds use these appendages to help feed. Just like we have different utensils to eat different foods, birds' bills come in all shapes and sizes to help them eat different foods.
Hollow, fused bones-These bones allow birds to be much lighter than us. Why might that be helpful? How could it be dangerous?
Feathers- Feathers are one of the most important features of birds! Feathers are made out of keratin, the same thing as our hair and fingernails. What do birds use their feathers for?
Birds use their feathers for more than just flight. What are these birds using their feathers for?*
Now that we've taken the time to think about what characteristics birds have, let's take some time to look for some in our own neighborhood! Go ahead and try to identify a local bird near you!
Whether you're a beginning bird-watcher or a master birder, there are a few things we can look at to help us figure out who our fantastic feathered neighbors are:
Size-How big is the bird? Is it sparrow-sized, or as big as a robin? Bigger?
Body shape-Is it shaped more like a duck, or a hawk, or a sparrow? Does it have any unusual characteristics that make it stick out
Colors-What colors does the bird have? Where do we see different colors on the bird's body? Does it have any stripes, spots, or patterns in different colors?
Location-Just like us, birds have favorite places to hang out. Some like to be near water, while others prefer drier places. Some birds thrive in cities, while others need a bit more privacy. Some birds hang out close to the ground, while others glide high overhead. Where did you see the bird?
Behavior- What is this bird doing? If it's eating, can you see what it's chowing down on? Is it very active, or does it prefer to move slowly? Is it traveling in large numbers, or by itself? Is it swimming, walking, jumping? Watch your bird for a few minutes to see what it does, and make notes of that as well.
Sounds- Birds make lots of different sounds! What does your bird sound like? Is it making whistling noises, or chirps, or screeches? Is it loud or quiet? Even more fun, some birds say their names!
This commonly-seen, blue-colored bird is a larger than a sparrow, and can often be seen harassing other birds. It makes many different calls, including mimicking the calls of hawks, but is best known for its harsh “Jay! Jay!” call. Looking at the crest on its head and its mostly white chest, a field guide can help it be easily -identified as a blue jay.*
If you aren't sure what birds can be seen in your area, there are many different field guides you can use, as well as the Ebird website mentioned during week five.
Once you start looking closely, you begin to notice that we have many amazing, unique birds no matter where you go! Just like us, each one has a life story and is doing what it needs to do in order to survive. But other than just meeting its basic needs, birds are at risk for many other things. Here are some of the biggest man-made dangers to birds, and how you can help protect them:
Loss of natural habitat-As we continue to destroy birds' homes to make room for our own, it becomes harder and harder for them to survive. Parking lots, roads, and houses can become deadly places for birds. By planting native trees, shrubs, and other plants in our communities, we're giving them a safe home. If you want to see more birds, try planting a native wildflower garden or putting a few more shrubs in your yard.
Dumping of trash- Making sure our litter ends up in a recycling or trash bin keeps birds from eating trash that is unhealthy for them. This includes both plastic (which birds will feed to their young as they think it is food) and products such as bread crumbs (which are not healthy for birds and can actually cause them to get sick if they eat too much of it). Furthermore, garbage on roadsides attracts rodents, a favorite food source of hawks and owls. Many of these birds of prey are hit by cars each year going after rodents drawn to these easy food sources.
Windows- Because glass is transparent, birds will often try to fly through it, fatally-injuring themselves. Putting decals or stickers on windows (with your parents' permission!) may help prevent some of these deadly window strikes.
This is the biggest unnecessary bird-killer of all: Cats. Even if you never see your outdoor cat kill a bird, they kill billions of them in the United States alone. According to National Geographic Magazine (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/08/cats-kill-reptiles-populations-australia-animals/#close), a single cat and her kittens were all it took to push a bird species to extinction in New Zealand. The good news is that there are ways that your cats can enjoy being outside without killing birds. People are creating “catios”, enclosed outdoor spaces for their cats to explore. You can also harness your cat up for a walk, although they do take some time to get used to the harness. And of course, you can always leave a window open for them to watch the birds: they find it as much fun as we do! But if you want to keep your neighborhood birds safe, Fluffy and Mr. Whiskers should stay inside unless they're being watched.
A harness is a great way to bond with your cat outside while keeping birds safe! This adorable picture of Leroy is courtesy of Phillip Ma. Thank you!
If birds are exciting to you, you might start keeping a checklist of the birds that you have found in the wild. Many bird-watchers find it like a rewarding treasure hunt to add check-marks to their lists.
Wings Over Arkansas ( https://www.agfc.com/en/education/in-the-field/wingsoverarkansas/ ) is a great program to get started with if you want to get involved in a project that helps scientists and lets you keep track of the birds you've seen. Their checklist can be found here (https://drive.google.com/file/d/12ulHbUyxF2TcnqRDi8gIMFr6dW1DsPuI/view ) . This one is fun because they have different “levels” that you reach after seeing certain numbers of birds. For example, because I've seen between 100-175 species of birds in the state, I would be at the “Belted Kingfisher” level.
If you want to keep track more casually, you can always use a blank journal to record your sightings. This can be fun because you can also draw the birds you see!
*Most bird pictures for this post were sent in by Alyssa DeRubeis, a previous teacher-naturalist here at ONSC. Thank you! The exceptions were the duck (a muscovy duck named Donald, who hangs out at White Oak Lake State Park) and the gull (a California gull photographed in...California!).
If you enjoyed watching today's lessons and would like to purchase one of our ONSC Virtual Merchandise Packages, which includes an ONSC Program T-shirt and field journal, click to go to our Online Store.
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