Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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One of the most common questions that I am asked is “how can we get our internet- and video game-addicted kids interested in the out-of-doors?” Since I am an internet-addicted semi-adult, I can say that one way to get kids interested in nature is to make it accessible to them, and perhaps the best way to do this is through books. A new field guide was just published whose target audience is kids between the ages of 8 and 12 years old. This remarkable book, The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (NYC: Houghton Mifflin; 2008) was written by Bill Thompson III, under the close supervision of his daughter, Phoebe, and her elementary school classmates, who are part of the book’s targeted demographics.

Each page of this field guide is a self-contained bundle of information about one bird species. It includes the common and scientific names for the bird, its length in inches, a color photograph along with a pencil drawing that depicts a particular behavior, a color-coded range map of the United States depicting the species’ seasonal distributions, and several well-written sections; Look For is a listing of useful field marks as they appear in both good and poor light; Listen For describes the species’ songs and call notes; Remember provides useful information such as how to distinguish the bird from look-alike species, a characteristic behavioral feature or ecological preference or former names; and a Wow! fact in a circle that describes some special aspect of the species, such as how the prothonotary warbler got its weird name, how wood duck ducklings get to the ground from their nest high in a tree, or the unique Latin of the red-eyed vireo’s scientific name. To encourage kids to keep a life list, there is a check box and space at the bottom of each page that can be marked to indicate when and where the bird was first seen.

This 256-page book is a comfortable size for fitting into small-to-medium sized hands, it is bound in a light but durable “flexi-bind” cover that will withstand rough handling and the occasional fall into a puddle, and it includes information about 200 of the most common species of birds that one will see in the eastern side of North America. In the front of the book are 43 pages of basic information such as “Getting Started in Birding”, “Be Green: Ten Things You Can Do for the Birds” and “Birding Manners” — which at least a few adults should read and take to heart, also. One thing I was especially amused by was the picture of the author’s daughter, Phoebe, dressed up in typical birding gear with various parts of a bird watcher labeled, just as bird morphology is labeled in other field guides. In the back is a list of birding resources, a 6-page glossary, and a 4-page index. The book’s design, the flexi-bind cover, and all of the 300 color photographs, including those on the cover, were chosen by Phoebe and her classmates. Perhaps best of all, the book is written in an accessible and engaging way that doesn’t patronize kids. I recommend this wonderful little book for helping kids to learn about and appreciate birds. But you don’t have to take my word for it: in recognition of the effort that an entire classroom of kids invested into this book, I have recruited my colleagues’ kids here at ScienceBlogs to review this book, and will add links to their reviews when they are published. Further, even though this book designed by kids for kids, I think beginning and casual adult birders might also appreciate this book as they familiarize themselves with their new avocation.

Bill Thompson, III has been an avid birder since the age of eight. He is the editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, and the author of Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges. Thompson is a founding director of the Ohio Ornithological Society, a longtime member of the American Birding Association, often serves as a consultant on editorial projects, on birding ecotourism programs, and creates regular a podcast for bird watchers called This Birding Life. He lives with his wife, author, illustrator and NPR commentator, Julie Zickefoose, and their two children on eighty birdy acres in Ohio.

Comments

  1. #1 Bardiac
    May 18, 2008

    Oh, this sounds GREAT for me! (But I may also get one for my niece and nephew.)

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    May 18, 2008

    Coincidentally, on the cricket commentary the NZ commentator (Jeremy Coney) has been asking the Englishman (Blowers) whether there’s a difference between a cormorant and a goose. The answer – a cormorant is not so good to eat.

    They then drifted onto a discussion between the difference between soporific and thoughtful pigeons.

  3. #3 BOTB
    May 18, 2008

    Dear GrrlSci:

    Thanks so much for this nice review of the YBG. Looking forward to the reviews from your colleagues’ kids.

    I enjoyed talking with you!

    BOTB

  4. #4 G in INdiana
    May 18, 2008

    The easier way to do it is to not buy a bloody video game console to begin with.

  5. #5 birdbrain
    May 18, 2008

    It begs for a companion CD of the calls of those birds, doesn’t it?

    Hearing the sound of the cardinal helps us know what to look for. Identifying the calls tells us what’s around, and who’s calling.

  6. #6 Nature Remains
    May 21, 2008

    So nice to have a product aimed toward a young audience.
    So many experts reveal an early start in their “careers.” And, as with language, very often young learners excel.
    Very appropriate.