Birdwatching with Kids

A group of children use binoculars to look for birds
Photo courtesy of Urban Adventure Squad

Birdwatching has a long history as a hobby, but it has grown exponentially in recent years. In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that there are approximately 45 million birdwatchers in the United States. The number of birdwatchers expanded especially rapidly during COVID-19 lockdowns, when it offered many people a new way to spend time outside away from crowds. This is great news for new birdwatchers, who are spending more time outside engaging with nature, and it’s also a positive development for conservation efforts. More birdwatching means more people invested in the wellbeing of birds and the ecosystems they inhabit, as well as more money towards conservation through entrance fees to wildlife refuges and donations to organizations like the National Audubon Society. This is especially important as birds struggle to survive amid climate change and habitat loss. Recent studies show that North America has lost around 3 billion birds in the past 50 years, which is more than a quarter of the continent’s total bird population.

A child plays bird bingo on a clipboard
Photo courtesy of Urban Adventure Squad

Despite the rise in popularity of birdwatching, the stereotype of a birdwatcher remains an older adult with access to money and time to travel and hone their skills. The reality, however, is that birdwatching is a great hobby for anyone, no matter their age or level of privilege. Learning about birds and spending time outside observing them can be incredibly rewarding whether you travel to new places or are working to become more familiar with the species in your local park. One great opportunity to bring more folks into the birding community is to teach young people the basics of birdwatching.

A group of students and teachers look for birds near a pond

While birdwatching might be new to many kids, they can start off by simply looking for signs of birds like nests or poop or they can pick a spot to sit still and listen for birds. As kids get more familiar with birdwatching, they can learn about using binoculars or set goals to identify multiple types of birds during an excursion. Kids can get started by watching for birds right in their neighborhood. Birds are everywhere - on city streets, in pocket parks, along power line cuts, in backyards, in farm fields, and on windowsills. Two especially good places to look for birds are near water and around “edges,” or areas where one type of habitat changes into another.

Kids walk down a sidewalk looking for signs of birds
Photo courtesy of Urban Adventure Squad

Getting kids excited about birdwatching might help foster a new generation that is conservation-minded, but birdwatching is also good for kids’ mental health and development right now. Birdwatching is associated with a range of health benefits. Regularly spending time outside can reduce stress and anxiety, and birdwatching helps to promote skills around listening, patience, and observation. Asking kids to describe the colors, shapes, sounds, and patterns of the birds they observe can build new vocabulary, increase their confidence in expressing themselves, and encourage attention to details. Birdwatching also lends itself to all kinds of artistic activities like drawing field sketches or practicing bird songs.

An adult and child look for birds together

A helpful resource for any adult hoping to watch birds with young people is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s an organization that conducts top tier research and is dedicated to promoting the understanding and protection of birds. It has comprehensive guides to bird watching apps like Merlin (which can identify birds by sound) and eBird, bird-based lesson plans sorted by grade level, and family-focused activities that kids can do whether they’re cooped up inside on a rainy day or outside exploring nature. There are so many ways to get the kids you care for excited about their local birds - just remember to start simple and focus on making it fun. 

Kids sit at a picnic table and use binoculars to watch birds
Photo courtesy of Urban Adventure Squad

NRF supports several organizations that are working to create a new generation of birdwatchers. One such grantee is Openlands and its Birds in My Neighborhood program, which helps students see nature in their community by observing birds. Another is Urban Adventure Squad, a DC-based outdoor learning organization that considers birdwatching to be “an essential urban skill.” Birdwatching is part of Urban Adventure Squad’s year-round outdoor learning programs and in May staff even hosted a community birdwatching event called We Fly Together at the National Arboretum. Urban Adventure Squad is helping DC youth get connected with the nature in their neighborhoods and bringing new faces into birdwatching. NRF is honored to support the work of organizations connecting kids to the outdoors and teaching them about their local wildlife.