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How Birds Can Capture a Kid's Imagination

If you're trying to pry your kid away from an iPod, a Hannah Montana video or Webkinz, why not go outside and find birds?

That's what veteran bird-watcher Bill Thompson III, who wrote The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, suggests.

Thompson spent a recent Saturday doing just that with NPR's Melissa Block and her daughter, Chloe, who is almost 6 years old, at Huntley Meadows Park in Virginia. They stood on a wooden bridge over marshland and listened to calls of the red-winged blackbird, the male northern cardinal and the common yellowthroat. Chloe looked through a spotting scope and binoculars to see the birds' brilliant colors.

Getting Outside

Of course, not all children want to look at birds. The trick to getting a child interested in a day of bird sighting, Thompson says, is to get outside into nature.

"It's not hard, once you've got birds to look at, to spark a kid's imagination," he says. "Birds have these qualities that we as humans completely admire. They're beautifully colored in many cases, they make amazing noises, and they can do something we've only been able to do in the last 100 years, which is fly."

In the book, Thompson also pulls out what he calls the "Wow" factor — or fun facts — about each different species. Chloe picked up the fact that turkey vultures will vomit on an intruder when they are mad, and that it's impossible to get rid of the smell. Thompson said that even if you wash your clothes or soak them in vinegar, you can't get the smell out.

But even the fun facts might not be enough to keep kids engaged in bird-watching. For those who aren't as interested, Thompson suggests letting them lead the trail. That's what he does with his son.

"We say, 'Liam, you're the scout. You chart the path, tell us what you see,' " Thompson says. "He loves that. He's got a job to do, and he can self-pilot."

A Book, Binoculars and a Journal

For those who want to see the birds, a pair of children's binoculars that fits small hands and has eyepieces close together costs about $100, according to Thompson. He also suggests having a child keep a log of the birds, along with the dates and places they were sighted.

"And then they've always got that book of memories for years to come," Thompon says. "I've still got my book that I started in 1969 with my little scrawly handwriting in there about the first birds that I saw. I love going back and looking at that."

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