Taking young birders under our wings
(published 9-20-11)

In 2008, I applied to be a Boy Scout merit badge counselor. I submitted to a criminal background check, took the required Youth Protection Training, paid my fee and purchased a badge booklet at a Scout supply store. I was ready to serve.

Well, apparently Bird Study is not a very popular merit badge. The phone never rang. After a year without a single inquiry, I let my counselor status lapse.

None of this is too surprising. On local field trips, birders under the age of 20 are about as common as mockingbirds in Illinois. We hope to see them but rarely do.

The monthly bird walk at Cantigny Park last month had a theme: “Take a Kid Birding Day.” Adults were encouraged to invite a child, a grandchild, a neighbor kid or any young person who might have an interest in birds. We were ready, with plenty of adult leaders ready to share their skills. The park even purchased 50 copies of the “Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America” so that each child would have a book to use and take home.

Turns out, two books would have sufficed.

We all know that getting kids interested in nature—or just getting them outdoors—can be a challenge. The really encouraging thing, though, is that the two 11-year-old girls at Cantigny last month were enthusiastic, and it was by no means their first birding experience. By the end of the walk they’d exchanged e-mail addresses.

Seeing those girls reaffirmed my belief that kids and birds are a good fit. It’s fun to see them get excited about sights and sounds that most of us take for granted. The key is to keep them interested by offering more opportunities for birding and steady encouragement as they explore the hobby.

This is already happening, a good example being Illinois Young Birders. The club, ILYB for short, was founded in March 2010 as a special project by the Illinois Ornithological Society. So far it has about 30 youth members as well as adult supporting members and partner members such as the DuPage Birding Club.

“The social element of our club is very important,” says Brian Herriott, ILYB coordinator. “Often, children that develop a great interest in a hobby like birding soon find that there are few peers who share that interest.

“As an adult birder, some of my most valued friendships are my ‘birding buddies.’ I want members of ILYB to experience the same joy that I have of sharing the wonder of birds with friends and family.”

The club is for ages 9 to 18. Organized field trips are the major benefit of membership, and parents are welcome on all of them. To learn more, visit illinoisyoungbirders.org. The next 20 youth members to join will receive a free copy of “Birds of Illinois,” a terrific book (for all ages) by Sheryl DeVore and Stephen Bailey.

Another book I recommend is “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America,” by Bill Thompson III. There is nothing else like it—fun and light, but still very useful.

Kids need decent binoculars, too, and some models are better for young birders than others. A good source is Eagle Optics, a Wisconsin-based mail order house that caters to birders. The Eagle website offers helpful information about binocular buying in general. But what I absolutely love is their package deals for young birders. The “Young Naturalist Kit,” for example, includes a good binocular for small hands and a copy of Thompson’s book, all for $130. Shipping is free. There’s another value-priced package geared to slightly older youth birders.

To be sure, getting kids into birding is not expensive. Guided bird walks are almost always free, and there are many to choose from. For ideas, check out the DuPage Birding Club website and the newsletter of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn offers some excellent youth programs. Kids can get up-close looks at the center’s resident birds, too, including hawks, owls and eagles.

Not all outings are suited to children but most bird walks offer plenty of guidance. Many birders really enjoy sharing the hobby with youngsters.

Don’t overlook the backyard either! Watching birds at home is an easy way to develop a child’s interest. Encourage him or her to notice what’s coming and going, and to keep a list of sightings. The list will grow quickly, especially if you have feeders. Try offering a few different kinds of food and also a birdbath. Keep the field guide and binoculars in a handy place.

I know it sounds obvious, but the future of our hobby—and bird conservation—really depends on getting more young people interested in birds. Let’s all do our part to bring them along.

Me? I recently joined ILYB as a supporting member and also reregistered with the Scouts. I’m a Bird Study counselor again. When the phone rings, I’ll be ready.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.