For over 20 years, the Great Backyard Bird Count has been collecting data on wild birds from backyard birders and citizen scientists. Over 160,000 people contribute to the count worldwide, helping scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society understand trends and changes in bird populations.
But the count is about more than just collecting data—it is also a perfect chance to teach young children how to participate in the scientific process and learn about the natural world in their own backyard.
Want to enjoy the Great Backyard Bird Count with kids? Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Fill Your Feeders in Advance
Birds can take a few days – or even weeks – to warm up to new feeders. If yours have been empty, re-fill them as soon as possible to give birds a chance to become familiar with them.
2. Do Some Research Ahead of Time
If you or your children are new to birding, you will want to start familiarizing yourselves with your backyard birds ahead of the count. Download an app like Merlin Bird ID which will show you the most common birds for your location.
While apps can be handy for identification, young children will probably prefer flipping through books. If you don’t have a field guide, head to your local library to check out a few books. Tip: Be sure to ask your librarian for help finding kids books on birds. They may be filed in non-fiction, and not in the children’s section.
With a little preparation, your kids will be able to recognize the most common backyard birds before the count begins.
3. Get Prepared
Prepping ahead of time will go a long way in keeping your kids entertained during the count. First, pick a window from which you can comfortably observe birds. Next, make sure you have all of your supplies ready—notebooks, pencils, field guides, binoculars, and of course—plenty of snacks and drinks.
Plan to set up before you are ready to sit down and count. Otherwise, jumping up and down to look for field guides or to grab a pen might scare off birds right outside your windows.
See also: 5 Incredible Bird Facts to Tell Kids
4. Make Sure Everyone Feels Included
Even the littlest child can point at a window and shout “birdie!”
Preschoolers may want to keep a tally of their own. For example, one check mark for every big bird, one check mark for every little bird. You can also create a sheet with different colors at the top, and have little kids make a mark every time they see a “brown bird” or a “blue bird.”
Elementary schoolers and up might enjoy keeping their own list independent of everyone else’s. But no matter the contribution, make sure your kids know they are part of a global science project. Even from young ages, kids appreciate doing authentic work and contributing to their communities.
See also: How to Accurately Count Flocks of Birds
5. Keep it Fun (and keep it short)
The GBBC guidelines ask participants to record the number of birds seen in a given location over a minimum span of 15 minutes. If you have young children, don’t try to push it any longer than that. And don’t be terribly surprised if they don’t last the entire fifteen minutes either.
Having fun snacks nearby may keep your birders entertained longer. Watching birds out the kitchen window while eating cinnamon rolls can be a perfect way to start a lifelong love of birding. If you have older kids, putting on a podcast might keep them entertained a little longer. Check out this episode of But Why? about kids’ favorite birds.
If your kids are not yet familiar with local bird species, try keeping it simple – play “Crow or Not Crow?” And there’s no need to stress if you can’t exactly identify what that little brown bird hanging out at your feeder is. Record what you can identify, and make a note of what you can’t.
No birds at the window? Read some nature-themed books while you wait, or have the kids draw a picture of the silliest bird they can imagine. And reassure them while it may not be as fun, reporting no birds seen is still good information for scientists to have.
Report Your Data
Every bit of data counts, so be sure to report your data to the Great Backyard Bird Count when your fifteen minutes are finished.
If your kids had fun, try again later in the weekend at a different time of day. You can compare and contrast what you saw with what you recorded earlier.
The Great Backyard Bird Count can be a great way to start a family tradition and inspire young citizen scientists. And best of all, you can do it in your pajamas.