Recently I’ve been reading about “spark birds” at blogs like Bill of the Birds and watching folks talk about the concept at the Jeff Gyr Blog. The idea is that you see one bird, often when you are a child, that sparks a passionate interest in birds and initiates a lifetime of birding. If we were going to name a spark bird for our family, it probably would be the Monk Parakeets that Aaron, then six years old, saw on the south side of Chicago. But the story’s much more complicated than that.
Gail and I have always supported our boys interests, no matter where they’ve taken us. With 13-year-old Ethan it’s been easy, at least for me. I’ve been interested in natural history since I was a boy, and Ethan’s always been interested in things I also love, like dinosaurs, bugs, and rocks. However, 12-year-old Aaron has put our parenting philosophy to the test. His first passionate interest, beginning at age two, was cars. Cars? As an environmentalist, cars are not my favorite thing! But we supported him none the less, often going to extremes.
I felt a bit more comfortable when Aaron’s interest gradually shifted to trains. My Dad loved trains, and they’ve always seemed a greener form of transportation. So, on Aaron’s days alone with me, we’d either go watch real trains in local freight yards or visit the Museum of Science and Industry to see their layout of model trains.
Meanwhile, Aaron was also developing a passion for warm, fuzzy animals — especially ones that cuddled close. Although Aaron’s interest may have fed an innate need for comfort, Ethan played a role when Aaron was an infant. Trying to teach Ethan to share things with his baby brother, we held a ceremony where we divided up our family’s plastic animals. Ethan kept the plastic turtles, fish, and bugs, because he loved cold-blooded creatures. Aaron got the leftovers, which were mostly plastic mammals: Cows and lions, hippos and pandas. Ethan bestowed upon his brother all warm-blooded creatures, and so it went from there. The plastic was supplemented and eventually replaced by warm and fuzzy stuffed animals, which were much more cuddly. Aaron’s stuffed animal collection grew and grew, until it no longer fit his bedroom.
And now we come to pets. As oldest, Ethan got to choose our first caged pet, and of course it was cold-blooded: A Leopard Gecko. As we added more animals to our household, they were all cold-blooded, too. Frogs, toads, snakes, giant millipedes, and assorted bugs from the neighborhood. Was it any wonder that warm-and-fuzzy Aaron started begging for a real live rabbit? Aaron begged, I researched the options and decided there was no way we could keep a rabbit happy in our tiny house. Aaron begged some more, so I started naming warm and fuzzy options. Our compromise was parakeets, first two, then three, then four in one cage. Then, “No more, Aaron, you have enough!” That’s what we thought.
And that’s where Monk Parakeets come into this story. Driving home from four hours of watching trains at the Museum of Science and Industry, we stopped at a McDonald’s for a snack. Looking out the restaurant’s window, Aaron saw some birds in the 57th Street median. Big, green, fuzzy birds, like giant versions of his parakeets. He had to get closer. So we crossed the street and searched the trees for more. There were dozens of them squawking, eating crab apples, and flying to their big nest of sticks. Aaron had to have one! He wanted me to break into the nest and take a baby Monk Parakeet that he could raise as his own.
Again the begging, for at least a week. Again, the compromise. No baby Monk, stolen from its nest. Instead we’d buy a nest box for Aaron’s pet parakeets and see what happened. What happened was a litter of tiny pink babies, and when they had grown, another litter. Aaron was happy as he cuddled with his warm and fuzzy fledglings.
Seven-year-old Aaron cuddling with his fledging parakeets.
As a long-time bird watcher, I saw an opportunity and took it. I installed a tube feeder in our backyard, and we started feeding sunflower seeds to our local birds, attracting Cardinals and House Sparrows. We saw some Goldfinches down the alley and installed a thistle seed feeder. The Goldfinches visited our yard the next day. We tried suet and got Downy Woodpeckers. Whole peanuts in the shell, we got Blue Jays. Aaron was captivated. One Saturday morning I found him sitting on the kitchen table, looking out the back window for almost an hour. He said, “This is better than television!” The next weekend we started counting birds for Project FeederWatch, and we’ve never looked back. (Until today.)
We started looking for birds in local parks, and soon Ethan shared the passion. Our 2006 trip to South Dakota was a turning point for him. Sure, Ethan and I hunted fossils in the badlands, but he was almost as interested in birds as bones. Then Aaron discovered birding e-mail lists that fall, and our lives have never been the same. Almost every weekend we explore Illinois and surrounding states in search of birds that Aaron finds on “my lists.” We also found some bird banders who let kids touch the birds. For Aaron, physical contact with birds fulfilled a deep need, and we returned many times to help them with their work.
Ethan was the one who turned us into bird monitors when we discovered Greater White-fronted Geese at Columbus Park. When we posted the birds on the Illinois birding listsev, he insisted we describe ourselves as “Columbus Park bird monitors.” A Bird Conservation Network member read the post, and soon we were recruited as official eBird monitors for the Park. Now we collect data there at least twice a week. I’ve also found that year lists and life lists help maintain the boys’ interests in birding, although I’d just as soon stay closer to home and track the movements and behaviors of our neighborhood birds.
But what if we’d bought Aaron his rabbit? Would our lives still be the same? Maybe we would have started volunteering at the Animal Care League four years ago, instead of last month. Maybe Ethan would still want to be a paleontologist when he grows up, instead of an ornithologist.
Can you see why I find the spark-bird concept insufficient? Perhaps the true spark for our family was as much the rabbit we didn’t buy as the Monk Parakeets. Or maybe the boys are birders now because we supported their early interests in trains and cars, dinosaurs and turtles. Perhaps it was inevitable that our boys would become birders, because they had everything they needed to ignite the passion. Ethan and Aaron are the kinds of kids who develop passionate interests, and we’re the kinds of parents who support them; birds are an active and diverse, warm and fuzzy, every-changing part of their world, even in our urbanized setting; and the boys had a birding mentor as a parent. I’m partial to this three-part explanation. Their early lives prepared a bed of tinder; Monk Parakeets sparked an interest in birds, not mammals; and I helped nurse the spark into a flame.
Spark-bird stories are fun, but if we want more children to develop a passion for birds, we need to think beyond the spark. Each spark bird is a small but easily remembered part of a longer story. We also need to prepare the beds of tinder, and we need birding mentors who are there to nurse the flame. Future birders need support and nurturing in ways we are just beginning to understand.
Speaking of birding mentors, the Cape May Bird Observatory has a website called Take a Kid Birding that discusses this topic. The Georgia DNR website also discusses birding mentors within the context of an annual competition.
There’s been quite a bit of research on how children develop and maintain passionate interests, what they gain from them, and how their parents can help. However, not much is specific to children’s interests in birding. So, I’ve also been reading John C. Robinson’s new book, Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers. A lot of what he writes applies to any kids growing up in urbanized environments. Here’s an online review of his book.
If you’re interesting in preparing tinder, here are some references I’ve been using as I write the first draft of a book on how parents can support their kids’ interests:
Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., Leibham, M. E., & Kelleya, K. (2008). The development of conceptual interests in young children. Cognitive Development, 23(2), 324-334.
Brockman, J. (Ed.). (2004). Curious minds: How a child becomes a scientist. New York: Pantheon.
Crowley, K. & Jacobs, M. (2002). Islands of expertise and the development of family scientific literacy. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.) Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Deloache, J. S., Simcock, G., & Macari, S. (2007). Planes, trains, automobiles – and tea sets: Extremely intense interests in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1579-1586.
Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111-127.
Johnson, K. E., Alexander, J. M., Spencer, S., Leibham, M. E., & Neitzel, C. (2004). Factors associated with the early emergence of intense interests within conceptual domains. Cognitive Development, 19(3), 325-343.
Leibham, M. E., Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., Neitzel, C., & Reis-Henrie, F. (2005). Parenting behaviors associated with early intense interests in domains related to science. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 397-414.
Renninger, K. A., Sansone, C., & Smith, J. (2004). Love of learning. In C. C. Peterson & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (pp. 161-179): Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association and New York, NY; Oxford University Press.