G Force

Bird watching for kids

Julie Zickefoose


Bill Thompson III


Bill Thompson III is editor of the bimonthly Bird Watcher’s Digest and author of “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America.” He lives in Ohio and will be at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge on May 26 for “Watch Out for Vulture Vomit and Other Adventures in Bird Watching.” (2 p.m. 617- 495-3045. www.hmnh.harvard .edu)

Q. Why did you write a bird-watching guide for kids?


A. I first sparked on bird-watching in 1968 when a snowy owl came into our yard in Iowa. I got our crummy old binoculars and a field guide that showed a picture and a little information. [Years later] I saw that my kids were playing on their computers instead of being outside and I said ‘Man, here’s something I can do.’ My daughter Phoebe’s fourth-grade class [at the time] was my focus group, and they designed the format of the guide. Kids want something to stimulate them through words as well as visuals, and I didn’t want to dumb down the text.

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Q. The stereotype of bird-watchers is a bunch of old people with hats, binoculars, and frumpy clothes. Can kids relate to this?

A. That’s the reason why I try to have something really cool, awesome, funny, or really gross in each one of the species profiles.

Q. What’s the age range for the guide?

A. The stated range is 8-12, but the first person who bought one from me was a grandmother who said, ‘You should have called it the new bird-watchers guide.’


Q. And some of them are rock stars and movie stars?

A. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith is very interested, from what I’ve heard, and Paul McCartney is a bird-watcher.

Q. It’s an inexpensive hobby; you only need binoculars and a field guide?

A. You can get a field guide for under $20 (or borrow one from the library), and a decent pair of binoculars is $75-$100.

Q. Kids are into technology. Are there electronic devices they can use with the guide?


A. There are tons of apps available for bird-watchers, and some have full field guides on them. A lot of people use downloaded apps in the field. The old-school printed field guide has its place because you can see several birds on a page — and in my 42 years of birding I’ve never had the batteries on my printed field guide run out.

‘The stated range is 8-12, but the first person who bought one from me was a grandmother who said, ‘You should have called it the new bird-watchers guide.’

Q. Talk about birding manners.

A. In the field we’re trying to see birds and basically sneak up on them and see them before they fly away. So, you have to keep your voice down. You don’t have to dress in full camo, but you shouldn’t wear your loudest thing from the fashion mall. Move slowly and try not to point because that’s startling. If you’re with a group, don’t always stand in front.

Q. What are some tips for beginners?

A. Go outside whenever you can because birds are everywhere. You don’t have to go to some exotic place. Even better, go out with somebody else, the best way to learn, because bird-watching is a wonderful social activity. Practice with your binoculars, even on stationary things, so when you see a bird your natural muscle memory goes into action.

Q. Where are the best places to find birds in these parts?

A. Two of the best hot spots are in Massachusetts. Mount Auburn Cemetery is fantastic, and the other place is that whole Plum Island complex. There are probably more bird-watchers per capita in New England, specifically the Boston metro region, than anywhere else in the country.

Q. Your guide has a cool setup.

A. I wanted to break the text up into little categories that wouldn’t be as dry as a standard field guide. Any time I could make the point in a funny or punny way, even silly or gross, I tried to do that. There’s “Look for,” “Listen for,” “Remember,” “Find it,” a range map, and the “Wow!” fact which is almost always something to make you say ‘wow.’ The favorite of all the kids is the turkey vulture’s defense mechanism to vomit when it feels threatened.

Q. I’ll randomly open the book to see if you can tell me the “Wow!” fact. (I open to page 235.) The black-capped chickadee.

A. I think it has to do with their memory. They can recall where they cached seeds.

Interview has been edited and condensed. June Wulff can be reached at