Starting a Bird Club?
Why start a bird club?
What better way to get your students interested in birds than by forming a bird club at your school? Bird clubs can range from a small group to an entire class who engage in activities such as birding, studying bird biology, improving habitat for birds, and feeding birds in the schoolyard. These clubs can be a great way to get kids interested in science by exploring the outdoors and give them the chance to apply the skills and science concepts learned in class to the world around them. Additionally, having a bird club adds outdoor time to the school day so that youth can explore their environment and reap the many benefits that come from spending time outside. Through bird clubs, we invite you to introduce students to birds and spark their curiosity about the natural world, help them discover a passion for science investigation, or start a hobby they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.
For this post, we talked to teachers and educators who have begun clubs at their schools. This is their advice…
First of all, don’t worry if you’re not a seasoned birder. You can learn along with the rest of the club! Learning how to find the answers is more beneficial to students than you being able to answer every question. This kind of inquiry-based learning, where you guide them to answer their own questions, allows students to explore, discover and find the answers themselves.
Planning for success
First, consider your goals for the club and how you might achieve them. What activities will you do? On which themes will you focus? What will members learn?
For example, your club might wish to focus on activities like:
- Citizen science
- Improving the schoolyard habitat
- Understanding bird biology
- Practicing birding and seeing as many birds as possible
- Art, sketching, nature journaling
- Field trips
Make it fun! Be sure to gauge what your students are curious about and what they want to get out of their “birding club”. Ask students for help in setting the goals and agenda. Let the kids take ownership of the club!
Janet Vigeland of Hilltop Country Day School supported her kids’ passion for birds by encouraging them to figure out how to attract more birds to their feeding station. Soon, their entire schoolyard became a great bird habitat thanks to the efforts of the students and teachers.
Once you’ve set the goals, start to build interest in birds among students. Setting up a feeder outside your window can attract birds to your classroom and get students interested in learning more.
Meeting Challenges Head-on
One of the biggest challenges most instructors face when forming their bird club is finding the funds to subsidize supplies and field trips. You don’t need to have deep pockets to have a successful bird club. Donations are a great way to get your club off the ground. Parent groups, local stores, and supply vendors are often willing to provide donations of materials, funding, or in-person assistance to help your club get off the ground. See if some of the parents of your students or the local PTA may be willing to contribute funds or supplies.
For instance, Phil Khaler of Oregon built a bird blind for his students to use while observing species at their feeding station…for practically nothing! Using salvaged materials and donations from local parents and vendors, Phil constructed a sheltered area where up to 30 students could observe their feeding station in any kind of weather without disturbing the birds. His students have been collecting data to submit to eBird for twenty years and various scientific reports have been done by his students using their observations at the feeding station.
Grants and partnerships are also great ways to get funds and supplies. We offer Schoolyard Habitat Heroes Grants to qualified submissions on our Action Map, ranging from $100 to $750.
In addition, some materials can be gained through donation. Retail stores may throw away perfectly good bags of seed because they were ripped. Since they can’t sell the seed, ask if they will donate it to your school. It’s great publicity for the store, so make sure you and your club members send a thank-you note for them to display.
Not all activities need funds to work. You can go on bird walks or watch birds from a window. You don’t need to have binoculars and field guides for everyone in your club. Your school or public library may have some bird field guides you can borrow for club meetings. If you have access to technology, even just one computer, tablet or smartphone, look into downloading a birding app that the entire club can use. Establish a method of sharing materials that works for your group.
If your options outside are limited, consider doing some indoor activities like hatching chicken eggs or dissecting owl pellets, feathers, or pigeons. You can have members do bird-related art projects or make homemade bird feeders from common, easily attainable materials. Even just having a homemade bird feeder makes a huge impact on your kids’ interest in birds!
For older students, it may seem more difficult to get them excited about birds. But Gilroy High School teacher Jeff Manker disagrees:
“…young people are very anxious about the future of the planet, but don’t see much of a way to make a difference. I show them that their contributions to Citizen Science is a way to start that process. I link the birding we are doing, especially arrival and departure or absence of species with the fact that they can be key indicators of climate change. We have looked at the 2014 State of the Birds report to see if there were mentioned species in our area that we could be paying attention to. They take great pride and satisfaction in adding pieces of the puzzle if they think it reveals some information that is useful.”
Jeff worked with his principal, school board, and even the University of California to develop a year-long high school ornithology class where his students would receive college credit. Reaching out to sponsors and local agencies, Jeff acquired funds and materials to get his class off the ground. Since no high-school level ornithology textbook exists, Jeff often used BirdSleuth lessons and other Cornell Lab resources to teach his students.
Our BirdSleuth Resident Teacher Adviser, Barbara Jacobs-Smith, started a very successful student bird club, the Breck Birders, in Minnesota. Her advice for teachers just starting out:
“Make sure that the kids are actively involved in the club from the beginning. Let them give it a snappy title. Include kids when establishing the initial goals, rules, and expectations of the club. What do the students want to learn? What would they like to do? Establish clear expectations and consequences for the students involved that comply with school rules and student interest. Depending on the time of day when you meet, make sure you designate a student to bring in a snack for the club to enjoy!”
Bring in other teachers at your school who may have something to contribute to the club. The wood shop at your school could help you build bird houses or feeders; the art program could help when making bird-themed art. Some of your fellow teachers may have birding experience, or you could look into your local nature preserve or Audubon club for further assistance.
Make the bird club impact the students’ scientific inquiry and curiosity more through adding a bird habitat in the schoolyard. Some of our educators have had great success turning their schoolyard into bird-friendly paradises!
Janet Bass from Twelve Bridges Elementary School started her bird club by hanging a feeder outside her classroom window. Her students were intrigued and wanted to know more about the birds they were seeing. The next year, Janet added a bluebird box. After awhile, the club began to evolve on its own as students took on more projects and continued to improve the schoolyard for birds. Their collection of bird feeders and houses has expanded to include a beautiful multi-feeder station, several bluebird houses, and watering stations for birds. Janet began to have kids meet before school and during recess to learn more about birds, maintain the feeders, and make posters. Once a year, they take a hike to a local pond and have guests like the California Waterfowl Association and the Falconry Club come to their school .Important before starting your club:
- Be sure to check liability and supervision rules about having kids at school outside of classroom hours.
- If you plan to bring in outsiders like local bird experts or Audubon members, make sure you know the process and permissions required by your school or district to do so.
Helpful resources & activities
There are a lot of great resources available to help you plan and lead your bird club! Here are just some of our favorites:
- Pennington Wild Bird Feeders are great for the backyard or schoolyard setting and come in a variety of sizes and types. Some are even included with the purchase of a BirdSleuth Curriculum kit!
- Our friends at Pennington Wild Birds have collaborated with us to develop the Feathered Friends curriculum, a free download resource to engage students and families in fun bird-themed activities.
- Our Nature Detectives kit is perfect for teaching students about bird diversity, life cycles, and habitat using a combination of indoor and outdoor activities.
- Attract breeding birds to your schoolyard by installing nestboxes! Build your own nestboxes and participate in NestWatch, the Lab’s nationwide monitoring program of breeding birds.
- Check out some of our favorite bird books for kids!
- Don’t shy away from technology! Check out our top ten birding apps!
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Youtube channel and its affiliates have a huge variety of footage about bird behavior, bird biology, and bird watching. Here are just a few for you to consider:
- Inside Birding is a wonderful series for beginners! These fun videos teach the basics of birding and offer helpful tips such as identification by size and shape, behavior, color patterns, and habitat.
- If your club members are using binoculars, this short video provides tutorial on the vital skill of how to properly focus them.
- The Birds-of-Paradise project allows for an amazing look at some of the most diverse and specialized animals on Earth, the Birds-of-Paradise. Also check out BirdSleuth’s free download, Evolution in Paradise.
- All About Birds is an online field guide to birds of North America. It is the go-to reference for many birders wanting to know more about the species they encounter.
- Bird Academy focuses on the fascinating biology and behavior of bird species through interactive games and modules.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdCams are a great resource to give your club members an up-close look at nesting birds! Check out our Life in a Nest free download for lesson plans centered around the cameras.
- eBird is a terrific world-wide citizen-science project and bird database sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- Create your own classroom field guide.
- Moon and Bird comics are fun, visual ways to learn more about bird ID, bird songs, and other nature and science concepts. Western Bird Sounds, Eastern Bird Sounds.
- Habitat Improvement fact sheet (pdf).
- Educator Jeff Manker recommends these web activities from the University of California Museum of Paleontology. He uses them to teach about the evolution of flight and the bird-dinosaur evolutionary connection.