Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Little Brown Birds: Sparrows and Friends

We try very hard to follow along with the Outdoor Hour Challenges on Handbook of Nature Study. But we either 1) have short attention spans or 2) want to know about so many things that it's easy for us to go off on a "bird walk." But, oh! What a bird walk we can go on!

I wanted to capture our just-finished study of the little brown birds that frequent our backyard here in Connecticut. [Did you know that birders refer to all those brownish, teeny birds that evade identification as "LBJs" -- "Little Brown Jobs?"] We have a little Carolina Wren that thinks he's the boss of the back yard every spring, sitting on the porch railing and singing into the kitchen door. We were serenaded by the "Poor John Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!" of the Whitethroat Sparrow all spring, as well as the Song Sparrow. We also delighted to see Dark-eyed Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows as they passed through on the way to points north in April. And, of course, the ubiquitous (and extremely numerous) House (English) Sparrows that squabble in line waiting for their turn (impatiently) at the feeder.

Learning How to Observe: Outdoor Hour Challenge #1 - Getting Started.
My little guy has a hard time sitting still for nature study -- "observation" requires a lot of patience, silence and stillness, none of which my son has in surplus! So we began at the beginning with nature study. We took a stroll around the yard, noticing what was blooming, what had fruit, which vegetable seeds were germinating. We took note of the birds at the feeder. That's it. No writing, no overdoing it. We just spent time being together, and looking at things.

Read-alouds: Burgess Bird Book for Children
  • "Jenny Wren Arrives" (House Wren) -- not a sparrow, but the first story in the book
  • "The Old Orchard Bully" (House Sparrow)
  • "Jenny Has a Good Word for Some Sparrows" (Song Sparrow, Whitethroat Sparrow, Fox Sparrow)
  • "Chippy, Sweetvoice and Dotty" (Chipping Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow)
We discovered the Burgess Animal Book for Children last spring, when we began the Ambleside curriculum. When we decided to adopt Exploring Creation through Zoology I: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day for our science curriculum, we also decided to switch to the Burgess Bird Book for Children for our read-aloud. While this book is part of Ambleside's Year 1 booklist, it fits our focus on flying creatures, and I like the emphasis on taxonomy. Satori Smiles has a Burgess Bird Book for Children Companion that has links to useful websites and resources for each chapter.  We especially liked the links to audio files, and spent a lot of time listening to bird songs. Even Papi got good at identifying some of our little brown bird friends!

Notebooking: The Notebooking Treasury and others

Notebooking is an important part of our nature study. Here are my objectives for science and nature study, which I copied straight from our State's Science Curriculum Standards:

B INQ.1    Make observations and ask questions about objects, organisms and the environment.
B INQ.2    Seek relevant information in books, magazines and electronic media.
B INQ.3    Design and conduct simple investigations.
B INQ.4    Employ simple equipment and measuring tools to gather data and extend the senses.
B INQ.5    Use data to construct reasonable explanations.
B INQ.6    Analyze, critique and communicate investigations using words, graphs and drawings.
B INQ.7    Read and write a variety of science-related fiction and nonfiction texts.
B INQ.8    Search the Web and locate relevant science information.
B INQ.9    Use measurement tools and standard units  to describe objects and materials. 

B INQ.10  Use mathematics to analyze, interpret and present data.

I highlighted the inquiry standards that would be directly addressed by journaling or notebooking as a part of nature study. Powerful tool for kids!

If you study the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, you will learn that she didn't much subscribe to children spending great amounts of time studying creatures which they only see in books. On the contrary, she focused on the child studying whatever living things were readily available for study, be they barnyard chickens, pigeons roosting on the edge of a store roof, or a tree seedling growing in a crack of the sidewalk. In keeping with this philosophy, we researched other sparrows that might be seen in our vicinity, then selected ones that we had already observed, for further study. Our Birdstack list of sparrows and their friends is visible in the sidebar. 
    I purchased two "downloadables" subscriptions this year: The Notebooking Treasury, and Enchanted Learning. For our sparrow studies, I printed out pages for the Carolina Wren, English (House) Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Whitethroat Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow, from the Nature Study: Birds (Complete Set) bundle. I also used some generic nature study notebooking pages from a Handbook of Nature Study reader, and the Song Sparrow page from the Feeder Birds Coloring Book, developed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. This last resource includes great questions on each coloring book page, which correspond very nicely to the kind of nature study prompts Ms. Comstock uses in her nature study lessons, in the Handbook of Nature Study.

    Do check out the Notebooking Treasury. Use discount code = discount5 to save $5 on your $10+ purchase at 

    There are so many notebooking pages available, even within one set. We always have one page which include the following information: common and scientific name, specific details, a range map, a small illustration to color, and about a quarter page for writing. During read-aloud, he colors the illustration (using his field guide as a guide), and he uses the "specific details" section to record any details he learned about the bird from the reading (this is just the "were you listening?" section of the notebooking page). He looks up the scientific name (he loves scientific names), and I help him to outline the range map, which he colors according to the key (winter, breeding, summer ranges), then he notes when we might see that bird here in Connecticut.

    I have tried a number of different ways to encourage stamina in non-fiction writing with my son, and have discovered that a prompt helps him to write more deeply about a subject. So, for independent work after the reading, I have him think about, and write a response to, a prompt. Sometimes, these are questions from the Handbook, sometimes they go along with our zoology reading. Other times, they are ones that I make up. But I always try to focus on a bigger idea. Here are the prompts we used in our sparrow study:

    • Observe a bird flying. Name the bird, and describe its flight.
    • What are some problems associated with introduced species?
    • How do birds sing? Why do they sing? What are some functions of bird songs and calls?
    • Why are so many birds brown? Think of at least three reasons why being brown is beneficial to a bird.
    My little guy loves to draw, but is not very keen on coloring someone else's drawings. I DO want him to examine the field guides and try to color at least one diagram of each bird we study, because it DOES help him to identify the bird in the field later. So we've devised an agreement that works well for us. If your child is a reluctant colorer, maybe it will work for you, too.

    1. Many notebooking pages come with a full-page illustration, that you can use as the cover for a project. I would have loved to color one of these as a child (and still do!). But Malik does not -- he literally groans to see so much empty space. So I limit our coloring to drawings that are 1/2-page or less.
    2. He loves coloring with someone. And, I figure, one reason we homeschool is to spend time together. So we grab colored pencils and color together, when the illustration is a larger one.
    3. If he is going to color independently, we consult our field guide first, and discuss field markings. We are learning about these in our zoology studies, so it's a curriculum connection for us. Also, if he gets the important field markings in the drawing, I don't care about the other parts (we can color those in together, later, or not).
    I don't know about you, but not all parts of homeschooling go smoothly for us -- notebooking has been one area where we have had to do some work. But we find this procedure (all of what we described above) to work very well for us in nature study. We are all happy now!

    Background Lesson Material: Handbook of Nature Study (pp. 83-91)
    Whenever we happen upon a new creature, through our outdoor time or our Burgess Bird Book for Children readings, our next stop is always the Handbook of Nature Study. The Handbook is for you, the teacher. It contains important information about so many things you might want to study in nature, poems, and questions to guide your interactions with your child.  The link, above, leads to one of several online, downloadable e-texts, but I borrowed it from the library, and quickly bought my own copy. It will cost you about $25 for a used copy, but you will get your money's worth out of having your own copy.

    There is a big section on sparrows in the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, pages 83-91. There are lessons on the Chipping Sparrow, English (House) Sparrow, Field Sparrow and Song Sparrow, but there is also a poem about the Whitethroat Sparrow.

    Poetry: Handbook of Nature Study (pp. 83, 89, 91)

    I was never a big poetry lover, and it is still one of those things that, if I don't intentionally include it in my planning, I would probably overlook entirely. It just does not come into my mind. However, I know, as a teacher, that poetry is powerful, because the poet must use just the right words to convey a strong image and sentiment, in a small amount of space -- good stuff for helping kids comprehend their reading and for teaching them powerful word choice.

    I also know that kids sometimes like things that their parents do not! My son loves poetry, and makes up his own songs, poems and raps constantly. If I omitted poetry, simply because I don't care for it, then that would not honor his preferences. Fortunately, the Handbook of Nature Study sprinkles poetry throughout every lesson. When we come upon one of these poems in our HNS readings, he records the title on his notebooking page, as a record, and give him a chance to respond in whatever way he chooses. Sometimes, he surprises me!  In the example in the photo, he was imagining a conversation between a Song Sparrow, who wouldn't stop singing, and the stump upon which the bird was perched. I think it's clever...

    Our Sparrow Poems:
    These poems were based on the songs that the birds sang, and we are also studying bird song as a field identifier in our zoology studies.

    Lesson Ideas and Links: Handbook of Nature Study (website)

    Barbara McCoy, a veteran homeschool mom and nature student, almost always has at least one nature study on whatever nature topic or critter you might want to study. The only time I can't find something is if it's a really East Coast thing, as Barb is a West Coast resident, but this happens so rarely, that I am surprised by it. This is always the second place I go for information, after the book, above.

    For our sparrow study, we followed the links and ideas in Outdoor Hour Challenge: Brown Birds #5, which compares the House Sparrow, House Wren and Mourning Dove, three of our common feeder birds. It's so nice when someone else shares their hard work. I just love homeschoolers.

    Other Activities We Did in This Study:
    • Make a Bird List -- We took this opportunity to formalize our bird list, by beginning with "Sparrows and Friends." Birdstack is an excellent online bird list tool, that lets you enter detailed observations about birds that you see, and allows you to sort by many different fields (we sorted our list by bird family, which is how we got our Sparrows list, although you can sort and make lists by date, location, color... ). A cool thing is that your entries are added to a grand repository of all the users observations, so you can see your entry pop up on the list live, along with everyone else who is currently entering observations. Then, you can export any list you want as a widget for your blog or website, like we did. Our list is in the sidebar, to the right.
    • Listen to Bird Songs -- My son absolutely loved the audio files of bird songs at, and would beg to finish his other studies so he could pore over the songs and calls of all the birds he could name. Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon (although it drove our dog and cats nuts!).
    Share! The Outdoor Hour Blog Carnival
    When we finish a study and blog about it, I post a link to my blog in the Outdoor Hour Blog Carnival -- a great way to share with other bloggers and homeschoolers who are blogging on the same topic. Once a month, Barb highlights entries on her Handbook of Nature Study blog -- a good way to link up with others and increase traffic to your blog. The widget for the Carnival is on the sidebar.

    I am creating a Live Binder with all my bird study resources and links. Check it out!