As the dreary days of winter begin to linger, the sight of a single red cardinal can bring a certain gladness to heart. Children learn birds one by one, at the pace of about one bird per year, usually starting with a cardinal or robin. Children must be taught directly about nature, and since schools can’t possibly get wild birds to appear on cue, the study of wild creatures falls firmly in the family camp.
Starting with the first bird, a cardinal, puzzle aloud together the question of gender. Is it a bright red male cardinal, or it’s duller longtime companion, a female? Perhaps your family is like the faithful cardinal family, in which the male dutifully brings food to the female while she sits on the nest.
If the moment allows, give yourselves a mini-vacation, and spend time-out-of-time simply watching the bird together, deploying rich descriptive language such as red crest, black mask, orange wing tip and red tail feather. Not only does this help build word power, it teaches children the crucial life skill of observation and description, beyond label and categorization.
Come spring, the cardinal’s call is easily identifiable: “What Cheer! What Cheer!” Kids can sometimes entice a combative cardinal to come closer, by pretending to be a male cardinal and imitating the call, which turns into a lifelong thrill upon success.
Why bother to teach kids about birds? Rachel Carson’s father taught her about birds as a young child. When she grew up, she wrote a short fable about waking up to a world without birdsong as an introduction to her famous book Silent Spring, thus launching a movement that is still gaining momentum fifty years later. Who can really say what a few simple moments with a child and a cardinal can bring?