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Outdoors | Bird-watching provides a living biology lab at home
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Outdoors | Bird-watching provides a living biology lab at home

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Millions of American parents are faced with the prospect of home-schooling their children as the nation deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

While most parents can deal with basic math and rudimentary grammar, the sciences can be more challenging. That doesn’t need to be the case, according to Mike Baltz, a Carbondale resident and ornithologist.

By learning to identify a few basic species – the northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, red-bellied woodpecker, house finch and white-breasted nuthatch, virtually everyone can turn their backyard into a living biology lab.

“This group of six birds will represent 80 percent of the species that visit your feeder if you are only using sunflower seeds, which I recommend instead of a ‘wild bird mix’,” Baltz said. “If you add a thistle feeder you will attract American goldfinches.

“If you add a suet feeder, you will attract more species, including more woodpeckers. Other species will forage on the ground under the feeders too, like white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.”

The idea occurred to Baltz while enjoying some quiet time in the woods.

“I was out, we have some woods behind my house, I was sitting out there a couple days ago,” he said. “Through Facebook I have a lot of friends that are teachers. They are all posting this stuff, there are these hilarious memes about parents trying to teach their kids. I’m always thinking of things to help them get over the hump.”

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Of course, not everyone has feeders. And, during this shelter-in-place crisis, parents might not be view purchasing a feeder as an essential element of life. Not to worry, several species are seen almost universally in Southern Illinois, including blue jays, robins, eastern bluebirds, Carolina wrens, house sparrows and American crows.

And, a quick walk around the neighborhood will quickly expand habitat possibilities and species that could include Canada geese, mourning doves, downy woodpeckers, European starlings, brown-headed cowbirds and chipping sparrows.

“The best yards for birds have a lot of things birds need, like a water source, trees and bushes with berries and in-sections and safe places for birds to nest,” Baltz said. “If you have a ‘birdy yard’ then you might see dozens of different species there.”

For bird-watching novices, the important thing is to start with the common species and expand your horizons gradually.

“They build on each other,” Baltz said. “The idea is, you have chickadees, titmice, chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers, they are in your yard. It’s sort of a way to start small and then work your way up from there.

“You point those things out to your kids. You make it fun. You don’t stress them out. Not everyone has feeders, but you can put them up. Everything you see at your feeder, you’ll see in your yard.”

There are plenty of resources online, including the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology or Audubon, that can help parents flesh out these ready-made biology lessons. A simple Google search will provide nesting and feeding information. Many sites include bird songs.

“To turn it into a little more of a lesson, a parent could say we’re going to go out and see a northern cardinal, let’s now learn about that today or tomorrow,” Baltz said. “There are a lot of resources, even if you don’t have field guides. You can do that over the course of a whole month which is convenient because the whole month of April everyone will be stuck at home.”

Ten other species that are easy to identify and common in Southern Illinois include the great blue heron, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, killdeer, barred owl, belted kingfisher, pileated woodpecker, brown thrasher, red-winged blackbird and the common grackle.


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