Young Birders Taking Flight

By Victoria Sheeler

“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also,by the way, in our own).” – Richard Louv, from Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

If you ask a passionate environmentalist how they got started, many will have their own “origin story.” Their interests may be rooted in outdoor recreation among environmental resources, such as hiking, kayaking, and climbing. Perhaps they, like many in West Virginia, found their passion through hunting and/or fishing, and the conservation that goes hand-in-hand. Some discover a love for nature through finding amphibians and macroinvertebrates while exploring streams as a child, or by climbing trees in spring as leaves emerge and flowers bloom. You’ll find a wonderful variety of origins, but one of the most common is admiring the majesty of birds.

It’s only natural for birds to be one of the most effective gateways into environmentalism.  Birds are everywhere, found on every continent of the world. You can find birds with relative ease simply by paying attention throughout your day, even in an urban setting. At home, school, work, and everywhere in between, our feathered friends can be found living their lives in plain sight. The fact that they fly, in itself, is captivating. Many birds have bright colors and are just brimming with charisma, boisterous by design. They’ll sing, call, and display in unique and fascinating ways. All of these factors combined make birding attractive even at a surface level, let alone the incredible wealth of subject knowledge to delve into.

Birding has been a popular initiation into environmentalism for centuries, but has found a recent spike in interest. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in the sale of birdfeeders and bird seed, participating in citizen science, bird-related web traffic/search trends, and usage of birding mobile apps. With the bustling nature of humans put on hold, birds naturally came out to the forefront, putting themselves on full display. As such, in these tense and troubling times, many turned to birds as a source of comfort and company – and rightfully so! Even as lockdowns ended, interest in birding has thankfully remained at an all-time high. All ages will find a wide variety of benefits from birding, but few will find as much
intrinsic value in it as children.

The countless families that recently began birdwatching and feeding have, intentionally or not, created an extremely valuable opportunity for their children. Even if it’s initially through a window, watching birds come and go will inevitably spark a child’s curiosity and lead them outdoors. Simply being outdoors carries massive benefits for our mental and physical health! As a child spends time outdoors, they explore and look around, gaining confidence and comfort in their natural surroundings. Nature provides the perfect playground, with countless discoveries to be had. Adults can actively nurture a child’s curiosity by asking questions and guiding them to resources and information, such as books, websites, and binoculars. They will start becoming familiar with birds commonly seen, such as the American robin and American goldfinch, learning their names and identification. On the other hand, they may also brim with excitement when an unfamiliar bird comes to the feeder at home or into view on a hike, scrambling to find out what it was.

Birding doesn’t just come with inherent physical/mental benefits, but also social. Feeding birds, watching birds, inquiring into birds – these all provide opportunities for bonding through nature and common interest. Doing these activities as a family spreads the joy of birding even to siblings who are originally uninterested, and may even bridge into other nature activities together. One method of engaging in birding as a family is by making scrapbooks of your visitors and/or sightings, recording observations and adding pictures/drawings.

 Many other craft projects can be found online, such as schematics and tips for making bird houses, or how to make homemade birdfeeders out of pinecones, peanut butter, and birdseed. A birdhouse can bring not just visitors to your home or area, but residents too! One of the most memorable early birding experiences one can have is seeing first-hand a pair of birds creating their nest, caring for their eggs, raising their young, and eventually leaving the nest.

As children come to love birds, they develop compassion and reverence for nature, aiding to the formation of an environmental identity. A genuine connection between a child and birds, or any animal, will inevitably lead into a desire to protect the ecosystems in which they live. Sparking a child’s passion for the environment early on can have a monumental impact; by giving a child the opportunity to see birds first-hand, you may just have a hand in their own origin story as an environmentalist!

At the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, under the leadership of Katie Fallon, they are cultivating the next generation of birders and environmentalists through the West Virginia Young Birders Club. The WVYBC aims to promote a healthy lifestyle through birding while encouraging an appreciation for West Virginia’s native wild birds and Appalachian ecosystems. By creating opportunities for youth to view birds and experience nature together, this also instills a sense of community amongst the kids–something that is more important now than ever. The WVYBC hopes to expand the club’s outreach so that youth all across West Virginia have the chance to build long-lasting relationships with our avian friends and, by extension, the wonderful natural world around them.

Victoria Sheeler is Penn State University senior interning at the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia.