Bird-Watching with Kids: Author-Illustrator Annette LeBlanc Cate Explains Why and How

Annette LeBlanc Cate is not an “expert” birdwatcher. As she says in her new book for kids, titled Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, “not a single pair of my binoculars even work properly! I just really love birds.”

It’s that amateur’s fascination with birds that makes this new book so fun—and inviting. Cate, who is also the author-illustrator of The Magic Rabbit, shows kids and families how simple curiosity and the ability to get outdoors and observe what’s around you are more important than gear or guidebooks for anyone first learning about birds.

Her humorous sketches capture birds’ personalities and lighten the educational aspects of the book, which is just over 50 pages long and packed with accessible information. For example, Cate draws a rainbow of different colors of birds, including a blue-gray gnatcatcher taunting a merlin (also blue, but much larger), “Hee, hee! You can’t eat me—we’re in a chart!” On another page, she illustrates the fact that vultures don’t build nests by drawing an adult vulture telling its young, “Cuddle up to that nice hard rock, dear!” The sandwich tern (shown eating a sandwich, naturally) points to the yellow dot on the end of her bill and says, “Oops, just a bit of mustard.”

I asked Cate, who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons, to share her thoughts about the lure of birding, particularly for kids. She responded by email, and I’ve only slightly condensed the exchange (the ellipses are her style, not my edits).

Why do you think it's fun to observe birds?

Well... birds are funny! Look at their faces... some of them just look mad all the time (ever really take a look at a sea gull close up? Talk about grumpy-looking). And they are always doing something interesting with their busy little selves... finding food, keeping house, hangin' with their peeps, having little conversations with each other... showing off for the ladies... all behaviors we humans can identify with!

Did you watch birds as a kid? What are some of your earliest memories of birds?

I did like to watch birds, if I saw them hopping around in my yard. I was outside a lot... playing with my brothers and sisters and kids on the street... but I spent a lot of time just sitting and reading and drawing outside, too.... My street was woodsy and quiet, and had a brook and a field. Mostly I remember seeing robins and cardinals and blue jays.

When we kids found a dead bird we would make a big production of burying it, with a rock for a headstone, in a little graveyard (remembering, of course, to dig it up a few weeks later, to check on it, in the interests of science), and we would gather up grass clippings and mud from the charcoal grill and make nests, and leave them out in the yard in case a bird needed a spare. And in winter we would throw out breadcrumbs, and one winter we fed a duck who had lost half her bill, we would make her pans of oatmeal.

I didn't know anything about birdwatching.... that people made extra efforts to see them or learn all the different kinds they could be. (The only birdwatcher I knew of was Miss Jane Hathaway on "The Beverly Hillbillies.") It would occur to me, every now and then, though, that there may have been more to the bird world than I knew.

How did you end up writing a book about birding for kids? Did it begin with sketches?
Well, I would say it began with sketchbooks.

In the 1990s I was the art director for an animated TV show, and I had a very long commute. The only time I was outside was when I trudged to my car at the end of a 10- or 12- or 15-hour workday, and that was depressing sometimes. I worked too much, and as much as I loved our show I couldn't help but feel I was in an artistic rut. I wasn't drawing anything that didn't have to do with the characters on the show. I felt worn down, and I didn't feel like an artist anymore... I knew something had to change... and I thought drawing outside was just what I needed to clear my head. So I made a real effort to get outside with a sketchbook and draw.

One day when I was home sick there was a huge ruckus... all these funny black birds were on my roof, all carrying on and pecking and making all sorts of squalorous noises. What were they doing? Were they eating my house? Did they come every day? It really annoyed me that all this stuff like birds eating my house was going on and I didn't know about it, because I was never home. So I bought a beginners' field guide, a Peterson's, and I saw that the birds sitting all over my house and on my lawn were starlings, and I thought that was cool, that I had learned a new name. And next I looked up another bird I saw in the yard... turns out it was a flicker... and I looked it up, and there it was, doing exactly what it said it was doing, and it hit me that, wow, here were all these birds that I had never really been aware of, all under my nose all along, and I had never noticed because all I did was stare into a computer screen all day. So that made me want to get out and sketch even more.

When one sits and draws outside, one cannot help but to see birds... and I had that field guide... so I started to look them up. I also started walking more at lunch, and it just so happened that I worked right across the street from the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, which is a real haven for birds. I started looking out my car windows for birds when I was stopped at red lights on my trip to work, and I listened to bird tapes, too.

I flipped through more field guides... but I would skip the long boring parts about plumage and range because I didn't think I was all that into it.

Then I realized that well, I really was into it.

So then I figured I should actually read all that stuff about plumage, if I was going to really understand. And the more I understood about birds, the more obsessed I became... the more my crafty brain said hey, you know what would be a good idea for a book? A book that would explain all this stuff to kids, because a lot of this stuff is really important, but... just a little dry and not-quite-fun-enough for kids to want to read. (Because, really, I do think pretty much everything can be explained in a fun way.)

There seemed to be lots of field guides for young people, with nice pictures of birds, explaining which bird was what. But not so many that explained what all the other information was... like breeding plumage and zygodactyl feet, and classification... all that great stuff I really loved. I wanted to share! 

For a family that isn't familiar with birding, what are some easy ways to get started?

Well, I think the easiest way is to just start with walking, and sitting, and looking... and being interested yourself. If you want your kids to enjoy being outside and looking at birds, well, you have to enjoy it, too!

Being interested in nature is built-in with small children; they want to know everything about everything. They want to show you things, and have you tell them what they are. Sometimes this is great, like when we feel we have the time, and we are on a walk around the neighborhood and there is a fuzzy caterpillar to look at... and other times it's not so great, like when we are in a hurry and we all have to get somewhere and there is a slug behind the car, and they want to look at the slug, and his weird eye-stalk thingees, and they are worried that we will run it over, and there is no going anywhere until we find a leaf and persuade the slug to ooze onto it, to be carried to safety.

It is hard to remember to think about nurturing their curiosity and powers of observation when we are all in such a hurry all the time... and it's so hard to not be in a hurry all the time.

It takes time to slow down and be able to be in the right mind-set to be able to observe, and enjoy being in nature. Remember what it was like to take leisurely walks when they were toddlers, to be amazed with them at watching butterflies and worms and beetles and birds. All those creatures are really still amazing... you just have to remember that, too.

It was important to show them the world when they were small... and it still is.

You have to move slowly and be quiet for birds to hop by. We never see anything when we're in a hurry... so you just have to not be in a hurry when you are outside with kids. I know, crazy idea, huh? So we, as grown-ups, have to think it's okay to just take some time to sit outside and be quiet and not fiddle with our phones and think about all the stuff we have to do. We just have to be outside, and be happy there. Because, believe it or not, our kids really do pay attention to what we do, what we think is important... sometimes they really think it's important, too.          

Some easy things...

I think getting into the habit of taking a walk with kids every day is a nice thing to do, if you can, especially if it's the same place. Really get to know your familiar places, your own yard, your own street. Do you know what wildflowers grow? Can you watch birds eating the seeds... even boring old sparrows? What do they eat? Try to ask questions, and answer them, about the most boring place in the universe, your own yard.

Can you make your yard more inviting for birds... can you have a birdbath, or a feeder, or birdhouses?

Can you research the sorts of flowers that birds eat in your area? Can you plant them, can you let a little of your yard go wild? Even flowers in pots will attract hummingbirds or goldfinches.

So you start with what you can see out of your window.... then your yard, then your street... are there different birds maybe on the telephone wires? Just keep your eyes open. Are there other places in town you can go to... is there a park or conservation land nearby to check out? Even if you are in a city there are probably a few different habitats you can see.

Some slightly more advanced things...

When you go on vacation or anyplace different... take some time in advance to learn about what birds you might see there. Act like you think that will be just as exciting as everything else. (I know I'M just as excited, when we go to Disney, at the prospect of seeing ibises, as anything else!)

When you are going someplace new... make time for getting outside. See if you can find a field guide to the wildlife in the area, and try to go on a little hike if you can. Little adventures like that can really enrich your whole trip.

If kids don't seem interested, what do you recommend to parents and teachers, or to  
kids themselves?

Just keep trying. Keep walking. You don't have to clobber them over the head, that Birdwatching is A Worthwhile Learning Experience. It's fun! Just keep pushing them to be outside. Keep going outside with them. Let them know it's okay to just sit and be quiet and observe, and that can be fun... just a nice, quiet kind of fun.

Say you pick them up from soccer. Say hey, I think that's a hawk sitting up here on the lights. Maybe just sit for a few minutes. Your kids will like that you are just taking some time to sit with them and not hurrying them along. Maybe some birds will come by, maybe not. Just start getting into the habit of being outside in nature together.

Have you shared your interest in birds with your own kids?

Oh yes... I try, too. Are my children junior birdwatchers? Well, not really... but they like to be outside, we try to take a walk together every evening after dinner while the weather is good, and we watch for birds on the street, and we talk about what they are doing. Their grandparents live on Cape Cod, and when we visit we'll walk by the ocean. They are very happy to watch seabirds with me. They pick up feathers and eggshells and those things that owls spit out; we have quite a collection.

We're in the middle of birds' fall migration. Any special places you recommend visiting or species you watch for at this time of year?

Well, I live very close to Mount Monadnock, and I know that is one of those places where people watch fall hawk migrations. Will I go there? Probably not.... I just don't make myself get out to do things like that as much as I should. (I'm like pretty much every other mother, in that respect.)

But I will do what I can. I always look forward to that one day in fall when the trees will be filled with waxwings. And if I pay extra close attention, I will most likely see a funny fall warbler or two... not that I will be able to identify them, I am not too good at warblers, when they are in their fall clothes! But my favorite fall spectacle of all is the nighthawks. I will definitely tell my children, put the Minecraft device down NOW, come outside with me right now.... there are some birds I want you to see... this is the only day in the year we will probably see them... so come out now and I will let you finish your Minecraft game later, I promise, but you have to come see these birds now, because there they are, see how they're up there, flying around all crazy? And if you look very closely, you can see those white stripes on their wings... that's how you know they're nighthawks, isn't that a cool name? No, they're not really hawks... and the really cool thing about them is that they have really weird ugly faces... here, we'll go look at a picture of them close-up, after... but isn't it nice just to sit out here and look at them?

Book cover and author photo courtesy of Annette LeBlanc Cate.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog written by Heather Stephenson.

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