Five ways to make bird watching a fun family activity

With smartphones distracting us, aircraft engines roaring and cars whizzing by, the background hum of modern living can drown out sounds and sights that we might otherwise tune into.

But this year, lockdown forced a change of pace. The stillness and tranquillity that many of us experienced, has helped us to take more notice of our surroundings and learn to reconnect more with the natural world. It also showed that you don’t have to go away on safari to do so, you can encounter nature from the comfort of your own home. Especially birds.

The joy of watching birds is that almost anyone can do it with the minimum of effort, you just need a little time and a window view. For kids, birds are a great way to learn about life. So, here are some tips on how to engage your family in birdwatching and on what you can do to help birds thrive.

Start listening out for bird song

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A goldfinch

Lockdown coincided with spring, which is the peak time for birdsong and as many of us have been at home more we will have been more aware of the tuneful birds like blackbirds and song thrush, as well as the commotion of sparrows or the cackling of magpies.

BBC Radio 4’s 'More or Less' programme reported that lockdown seemed to lead to an increase in the volume of birdsong. Like us, birds will modulate the noise they make according to background sounds, just as we’ll talk louder in a crowded place or whisper somewhere quiet. So, although they seem louder to us, birds are probably singing more quietly as they don't have to sing over the noise of cars and planes. We are noticing birdsong more as there is less background noise.

So, try tuning into birdsong and maybe even make it a family activity. You can learn the songs of different birds quite quickly. You could get each family member to learn a common garden birdsong from BBC Countryfile’s Instagram site or from Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day which has library of birdsong to explore and enjoy.

As well as helping you to identify birds, you can enjoy the variety of calls and start to identify which calls go with which behaviours. And once your children know these songs, they will stay with them for life.

Feed the birds

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A blue tit and a great tit on a bird feeder.

You don’t have to have a garden to attract birds. You can hang feeders on balconies or even in front of your windows, so you can watch the birds feed outside from the comfort of your home. Bird food is readily available in most supermarkets and lots of local garden centres will stock a range of different seeds. You may be able to make your own bird food but check with the experts like the RSPB before putting out food as some things that may seem suitable to eat may be bad for the birds.

Make sure you keep bird feeders clean as bacteria can develop and birds can pass on infections to each other. When you have handled the bird feeders, make sure you wash your hands for the same reason. Once you have put the food out, don’t worry if there’s no immediate response – it can take a few days for birds to find this new source of energy, but once they do, expect them to come flocking!

Bird baths

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A male blackbird takes a bath.

Birds get thirsty as well as peckish, so don’t forget to give them access to clean water. They will need to drink, especially in the summer months and they will also use the opportunity to have a good bath. They will often bathe in dust and soil to rid themselves of small parasites, but a water bath is hard to beat when it comes to getting those feathers clean.

Try to change the water frequently as, like the feeders, they can pass on diseases to each other. If creating a bird bath rather than buying one, you must look for something shallow like a plant pot coaster. The RSPB have great advice on creating the perfect bathing scenario your garden, yard or balcony with tips on making sure that it is shallow enough for them to bathe safely.

Make your garden a safe space

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House sparrows perch on a chair.

Birds are really good for the garden – eating pests such as greenfly, caterpillars and slugs. But they are themselves prey, with the Mammal Society estimating a staggering 27 million birds a year killed in the UK by domestic cats.

If you are a cat owner, maybe try a collar with a bell, which Sir David Attenborough agreed in a 2013 interview for the Radio Times, would be a good Christmas present for cat owners and for Robins.

Bird tables and feeding posts offer a higher vantage point that helps keep birds safe. Place your feeding point away from hiding places like low bushes that can conceal predators. Now you can sit back and try to count the varieties of visitors to your birds’ paradise.

Getting the kids to take part

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You don't need binoculars but they can add to the excitement.

You can involve your kids by getting them to engage in activities from photographing birds to competitive bird spotting. If an unusual bird comes to your garden a 'twitcher’s' instinct can really kick in. Especially if they are logging birds in a notebook or capturing them on camera using their phones. The excitement of seeing your first bullfinch or identifying a dunnock hopping around the garden can soon inspire either sharing or competition between family members. Encourage the kids to give nicknames to the regular visitors as they recognise certain distinctive individuals. No points for Robin the robin though!

If you want to engage with other birdwatchers, both new and experienced, then BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham has been running his own online pop-up birdwatching club that you can follow and take part in here. For bird identification the RSPB has great advice on watching and spotting.

So, start to linger a little longer at the window. Take some time to watch the behaviour of birds. They can take you and your family out of your daily worries and help you to relax as they fly in and out of your lives.

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