by Emma Belanger
As someone who comes from a low-income background and grew up in a semi-urban environment, birds were one of the first aspects of the more-than-human world that I felt truly connected to without having to obtain expensive gear, resources, or and a way to travel to a novel environment. When I looked out my window, I saw birds in the trees outside; when I walked around my neighborhood with my family, I practiced my birding by ear; at home, I would sit for hours combing through my Birds of Michigan field guide and making notes about the birds I had noticed that day. For me, birds were an access point to what would become a lifelong dedication to learning more and being inspired by the natural world.
Now, as an outdoor educator working primarily with 4th-6th grade students, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach about birds. If we want to study ecology, knowing more about the birds in a particular ecosystem can tell us so much about how different actors are playing a role and acting in relation to other beings. If we’re curious about how the world changes over time, we might look to birds to help tell us some of the story. When we want to know more about the beings we share space and time with, we might turn to feathered friends, hear their calls, see their colors, and learn about ways the world brings life together. With birds having relatively easy visibility and accessibility in most locations, even in urban settings, shared stories of conservation successes, and many aspects worthy of awe, birds are a perfect candidate for rich studies in environmental and science education spaces that can connect us to the more-than-human world. Thus, in educational settings, learning about birds allows learners to think about the world around them in finer detail and gives them tools to begin asking questions about stewardship, conservation, and being in right relationship with their local ecosystem.
There is also evidence to suggest that being around and noticing birds can lead to positive mental and emotional wellbeing (Hammoud et al., 2022). Further, practicing birding can invite us to engage with other ways of knowing and being that allow us to reimagine what ecology means, making room to dismantle some colonialism present in academic ecoliteracy. When teaching about birds, we can engage in critical place pedagogy and put intentions towards expanding learners’ socio-ecoliteracy, where Indigenous, Black, and peoples of color history and culture can be valued as legitimate funds of knowledge (Wicks, 2020). There is not one right way of having a relationship with birds, and connections to birds can be profoundly related to culture, family, and personal experiences. Honoring an individual’s unique relationship to place and non-human animals provides learners with relational resources to dene their experiences in their own terms, leading to learning that becomes more personal and grounded in that individual’s reality.
Any outdoor place has birds for us to meet, listen to, and learn from, making bird lessons inherently a place-based topic. When lessons give learners access to ways of knowing that enable them to make more connections to their communities, act for important causes, and find ways to care for themselves and the world around them, knowledge can become a foundation where future worlds of justice take root. Climate change continues to impact human and non-human lives and ways of being, and having access to practices that feel grounding, important, and rooted in place-based knowledge may empower learners to act radically in reciprocity and appreciation for their communities and one another. In this way, engaging in practices of birding and paying close attention to the world can equip students with mindfulness skills, deepened nature-culture relations, and inspiration for future dreaming and activism.
If you feel inspired to try out a bird lesson with your community of learners, you can find a lesson I like to do with “new” birders below. I, for one, hope to make the practice of listening and watching for birds something I do with learners no matter where I am. This practice feels intertwined with relational gratitudes and can help us to reiterate a commitment to paying attention to the natural world. As Mary Oliver says, “attention is the beginning of devotion” (Oliver, 2016). In the time that I’ve spent with others thinking about birds, I’ve seen others experience, and I have myself experienced, feelings of joy, wonder, peacefulness, and excitement. All of these emotions, to me, are essential to humanity’s survival and ability to thrive in our changing world. To change with our world, we must be willing to listen, to take the time to see and feel what our bodies feel, to be present in what the present is calling for.
Birdsong Lesson Plan
Learning Goals: Feel familiar and comfortable being quiet outside, practicing grounding techniques through deep listening, making creative connections to the world around us.
DCI Focus: Biological Evolution; Ecosystems
NGSS Practices: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information; Developing and Using Models
Materials: Paper, writing utensils, any accessibility equipment necessary for your group of learners, bird eld guides (optional), binoculars (optional), Merlin Bird ID App or BirdNET app and device (optional)
Target Audience: 3rd grade and up
Ask a group about birds they may have seen in their lives, recently in a shared context or by connecting students to other ways some may commonly learn about or experience birds.
Use a mix of small group, individual, and large group reflections. Then, prompt the group to think for a moment about birdsong and what they already know about how birds communicate. Introduce the activity by asking learners what it might look like to try to draw a visual representation of a sound. If guidance is needed, provide ideas about pitch, tone, sound length, loudness, etc, and different ways those could be represented.
Pass out/ask learners to get out a blank piece of paper and a writing utensil while you explain that the group will sit silently for some length of time (5-10 mins depending on group interest and motivation), and while we listen for birds, we’ll draw out visual representations of the bird noises we here.
Emphasize that there’s no way to do this wrong and lots of ways to do it right. Students can use whatever symbols, patterns, or even words and colors, as long as it makes sense to them.
Do the activity with the students during the allotted time; draw what you hear! There is an opportunity to use the Sound ID feature of the Merlin Bird ID app, or the BirdNET spectrograms, if that would feel relevant to your learners or if you have learners that are in the Deaf community. Bird eld guides could also be used during this part of the lesson.
At the end of the time, ask students reflective questions. Perhaps, how many different birds did you hear? How did you know? Then, ask students to switch with a partner to try to decode their representations. Ask students to make the sounds they think their partner drew.
At the end, I like to ask students how it felt to be sitting quietly together in nature and if it was easier to hear sounds that they don’t usually notice. At this point, I share that birdsong is one way I feel like I can always tune in to my relationship with the natural world when I need it personally–if I’m sad, overwhelmed, anxious, etc. I encourage learners to think about what it might look like to try this activity in other spaces and contexts.
Conradie, N. & Van Zyl, C. (2021). Investigating the Environmental and Avi-Values and Birding Behaviour of Gauteng’s Young. African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure 10(5):1695- 1710. DOI: https://doi.org/10.46222/ajhtl.19770720-187
Hammoud, R., Tognin, S., Burgess, L., Bergou, N., Smythe, M., Gibbons, J., Davidson, N., A, A.,
Bakolis, I., & Mechelli, A. (2022). Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 17589. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-20207-6
Neruda, P., & Schmitt, J. (1989). Art of birds (1st ed). University of Texas Press.
Oliver, M. (2016). Upstream: selected essays. New York, Penguin Press.
White, R. L., Eberstein, K., & Scott, D. M. (2018). Birds in the playground: Evaluating the effectiveness of an urban environmental education project in enhancing school children’s awareness, knowledge and attitudes towards local wildlife. PLOS ONE, 13(3), e0193993. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193993
Wicks, T. (2020). Becoming Birds: Decolonizing Ecoliteracy. Portland Audubon. https://audubonportland.org/blog/becoming-birds-decolonizing-ecoliteracy/
Zych, A. (2016). Birding as a Gateway to Environmental Education. New York Audubon.
Emma Belanger (she/they) is a graduate student in education, interested in co-creating new worlds with learners. You can visit her website by clicking here.