Birders are fond of the concept of “spark birds” – the birds that inspire a lifetime interest in birding. Sometimes it’s a single sighting of a particularly beautiful species. Sometimes it is watching a common bird in a city park.
I’ve also noticed that birds can spark a general interest in nature and nature observation in kids. Let’s face it: the joys of hard-core listing, the finer points of warbler identification and cold, early mornings are joys that escape many youngers (and adults, too, for that matter).
But many bird species are easy to not only see, but to observe going about their daily routine.
In my experience, kids like to see birds doing interesting things. Some birds just naturally attract more attention.
Here are 8 North American species that I’ve found regularly delight children and new-to-birding adults. I chose some obvious “fan favorites” as well as some overlooked species that are pretty cool.
And how about you? What birds captured your imagination as a kid? Leave your picks in the comments section.
Top 10 List
Let’s start with the obvious choice. The great-horned owl is a charismatic species, and even better, it’s common and found across North America. You can find them in city parks, around suburbs, on farms and at nature preserves.
Great-horned owls also can be heard hooting, especially in the winter months. Even when my son was a toddler, he loved to see great-horned owls in trees, while listening to their hooting at dusk.
Owling is a fun winter activity for the family. You can often get an owl to answer your own hoots. Once you hear one, scan thick tree branches and other potential perches. The great horned owl’s outline is unmistakable. You can often sneak closer and enjoy the owl’s antics up close.
As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes, killdeer are “a shorebird you can see without going to the beach.” They’re vocal and highly visible, and often found in parks and open fields.
On a recent visit to a local state park, my now 8-year-old son came across a killdeer. He found the name to be hilarious (“It doesn’t look like it could kill a deer.”) Even funnier to him was the bird acting like it was wounded. Killdeer do this to lure predators away from the nest. They flop their wing on the ground, as if it is broken, and do a rather theatrical rendition of wounded, tasty prey.
Of course, we swerved away to give the bird (and its nest) some space. But seeing behavior like this is a great way to talk about adaptations and how birds find ways to evade predators.
On our local greenbelt path, I regularly see joggers and bikers immediately stop to enjoy an osprey flying overhead. The osprey is an undeniably beautiful bird. For kids, there’s another reason they’re interesting: They are among the easiest predators to watch in action.
If you find a river or pond that an osprey frequents, you can also see them dive into the water and come up with a flapping fish.
I still remember seeing my first osprey, on a fishing trip to Canada when I was 14. I’d sit on the dock by the cabin and watch them splash into the water. They seemed such a rare bird then. Fortunately, this is one bird species that is more common now than when I was a kid.
Once threatened by pesticides, pollution and illegal hunting, the osprey has rebounded and is now common throughout North America. During the summer, I see them almost daily around my Idaho home.
My son loves superlative animals: the biggest, strongest, most venomous. And fastest. For a long while, that made the peregrine falcon his favorite bird.
Like the osprey’s story, the peregrine falcon’s recovery from the brink is a roaring conservation success. One reason is nesting boxes established in cities. Tall buildings are much like canyons and pigeons provide abundant prey.
This provides a great opportunity for kids to dramatic predator-prey interactions even in the heart of cities. When I had an office in downtown Boise, I’d often see raining feathers and bird parts. Looking up, I might catch a glimpse of the peregrine darting away.
Nest cams allow another opportunity for kids to watch the habits of peregrines from home, including bringing home that prey to young.
If bothered, a turkey vulture can projectile vomit 10 feet to discourage further interaction. The vulture urinates on its legs to cool off on hot days. And it eats dead stuff, the reason for that bald head. Basically, to human sensibilities, the turkey vulture is gross.
And what kid doesn’t love the gross-out factor?
Of course, as with any bird observation, it’s a perfect opportunity to share why vultures are ecologically important as nature’s clean-up crew. If you are lucky (?) enough to see one tearing into some roadkill, you get a combination gross-out and ecological lesson.
I suspect I’m not the only kid who sprawled out in a field, hoping it might lure the circling vultures in for a closer look. Right?
This might be a bit of an unusual pick. I was one of those kids who dreamed of far-off places and the cool animals found there. It would be a while before I got to go see those places for myself, but sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of those unusual critters.
A local animal attraction kept a collection of exotic pheasants like the Lady Amherst, golden, silver and Reeves pheasants. I was taken with these spectacular birds.
They’re native to Asia, but some of these aviary and game farm birds escape. Some even form feral populations. The thought of tracking down some of these free-roaming pheasants always appealed to me, a bit of a safari close to home.
I smiled when ultra-birder Mya Rose-Craig, in her engaging memoir Birdgirl, devoted a chapter to see feral golden pheasants in the United Kingdom. It was one of her spark birds and one of her introductions to the world of serious life listing. (She went on to be the youngest birder to see more than 5,000 species).
Yes, I know they’re not native in the US or the UK. Still, unusual critter quests are fun. And they’re beautiful. If I hear of an exotic pheasant sighted at a local park, you can bet I’ll be there with binocs.
They’re fast. They’re colorful. And they’re cute. The various species of hummingbirds are very fun for kids to observe. With even limited patience, you can often see their whirring wings up close.
Ubiquitous hummingbird feeders have enabled many more children and adults to become fans of these little birds. But I think it’s even better to have kids watch the hummingbirds among flowers and native plant gardens. This, too, can be a lesson in pollinators and ecological interactions.
If you stake out flowers for a few minutes, you might see a hummingbird an arm’s length away. You could be fooled by the hummingbird moth, an insect with an uncanny resemblance to the bird. You can see bumblebees and wasps and birds all vying for pollen. The hummingbird is the undeniable star, but there’s a lot going on for children to enjoy.
Really, this could be any bird that dives, like loons, various ducks or grebes. Mergansers are my favorite, because you can often see (big) fish hanging out their beaks. And they just look cool.
Mergansers dive beneath the surface for a long time. When will they reemerge? Where? Questions engage young naturalists and keep them engaged in what’s happening around them.
I always enjoy watching a family of mergansers hunting as they float down a river. And of course, freshwater habitats are great for other interesting species, from belted kingfishers to great blue herons, from snowy egrets to American bitterns.
There are many ways to enjoy bird watching, from putting up a backyard feeder to chasing “big year” world records. Hopefully, that interest also leads to support of conservation, as many bird species face declines and uncertain futures. That interest can start at any point, and it often begins with enjoy the natural spectacles, all around us if we stop and look for a moment.