Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Coyote Returns to Columbus Park! February 19, 2010

Filed under: Animals,Mammals,Seasons,Winter — saltthesandbox @ 3:44 pm
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When we first started birding at Columbus Park almost four years ago, Coyotes were year-round residents in the Park. We used to find their tracks crossing the snow-covered golf course, and we sometimes saw the Coyotes if we arrived early in the morning. Some folks even said they had seen a Coyote den in the Park.

Then about 14 months ago, Coyotes disappeared from the Park. The last time I saw one there was December 18, 2008. So, I was very pleased this morning when I saw a Coyote just standing there in the middle of the golf course:

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.

The Coyote was just standing there in the middle of Columbus Park golf course.

I only had the Sony DSC-H50 camera, with its 15 times zoom, so my photos only hint at how beautiful it was:

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.

The Coyote kept an eye me and everything else that moved or made noise around the edges of the golf course.

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.

I tried to sneak closer by walking up behind the golf-course sanctuary prairie, but no such luck. When I peeked around the dried wildflowers, it was gone.

So, what’s a Coyote going to eat in Columbus Park? This past summer and fall we saw lots more Cottontail Rabbits than usual, and there are still lots of Gray and Fox Squirrels in the Park. Also, the snow is melting, and small flocks of Canada Geese have been returning to feed on exposed grass. Later this spring there may be 500 or more geese visiting the Park each day. For a lighter snack, there are often 40 or 50 Mourning Doves roosting on the south sides of wooded areas. Today they were just sitting on the ground, soaking up the sunlight. If all else fails, there’s usually something edible in the trash bins near the food bank, and some folks scatter bread to feed the wildlife.

So, it seems an enterprising Coyote could make a life for itself in this Chicago city park. We’ll see if this one sticks around.

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For lots more information about the Coyotes that live in the Chicago area, check out The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project: Urban Coyote Ecology and Management.

 

More Great Horned Owl Pellets at Columbus Park January 31, 2010

It’s been a busy month at work, but this morning, for the first time in two weeks, I monitored birds at Columbus Park. I saw 13 species of birds, including a Red-tailed Hawk whose tail was a mix of banded juvenile feathers and bright red adult feathers. However, I did not see the on-again-off-again Great Horned Owl who sometimes roosts in an oak tree on the west side of the Park. (Read about it here.)

I always enjoy seeing the owl, but when the owl’s gone I’m not too sad, because then I can search for owl pellets under its roosting tree. The pellets I’ve found so far (shown in this post) contained a mix of medium and small mammal bones, but no teeth. So I figured the owl was feeding on squirrel, rabbit, or maybe possum-sized mammals. Since I can’t often identify bones to species, I was really hoping to find some owl pellets with teeth or jar bones, which I often can identify. Today I lucked out:

Great Horned Owl pellets, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2010

Pellets spit out by the Great Horned Owl who sometimes roosts in Columbus Park. The large, snow-crusted pellet on the right includes a lower jaw. (Taken with my iPhone.)

Here’s a closer look at the jaw:

Owl pellet with rabbit jaw, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2010

I dug the jaw out of the frozen pellet so I could see the teeth. With the front gnawing teeth and grinding cheek teeth exposed, I recognized it as the mandible (lower jaw) of a Cottontail Rabbit. (Taken with my iPhone.)

Go here to see a photo of a complete Cottontail Rabbit skull with mandible.

This fall we had lots more rabbits than normal in Columbus Park, and I’d noticed gnawing damage to shrubs and small trees that was probably the work of rabbits. My neighbors in Oak Park had also noticed more rabbits in their yards this year and complained about damage to their gardens.  So, now there’s evidence that our Great Horned Owl is bringing the rabbit population back to normal.

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Here are links to information and activities about owl pellets:

 

A January Walk through Columbus Park January 17, 2010

As I monitored birds this morning in Columbus Park, I did an experiment. I took photos with my iPhone and uploaded them live to Facebook. It was kind of like a virtual nature walk!

Here the link to the public Facebook album with this morning’s photos:  A January Walk through Columbus Park.

Please let me know what you think!

 

Cooper’s Hawk in the Brush Pile November 18, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Fall,Mammals,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 12:41 pm
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For the third day in a row we had a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk trying to pluck House Sparrows from our backyard brush pile. For the third day in a row it came up empty clawed.

Here’s is Monday’s drama. The hawk kept trying to find a route to the very center of the brush pile, where a sparrow cowered on the ground:

Cooper's Hawk in the brush pile, Oak Park, Illinois, November 16, 2009.

Cooper's Hawk in the brush pile, Oak Park, Illinois, November 16, 2009.

Cooper's Hawk in the brush pile, Oak Park, Illinois, November 16, 2009.

Cooper's Hawk in the brush pile, Oak Park, Illinois, November 16, 2009.

Cooper's Hawk in the brush pile, Oak Park, Illinois, November 16, 2009.

As the hawk jumped down to the far south corner of the brush pile, the sparrow scrambled out from the north edge and took off, flying over the fence and through the neighbors’ yards. The Cooper’s Hawk followed as fast as it could, but gave up four backyards north. It flew back to our yard and landed on the fence, were it was greeted by a Gray Squirrel:

Cooper's Hawk facing off with Gray Squirrel, Oak Park, Illinois, November 16, 2009.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk faces off with a Gray Squirrel. This time the squirrel blinked first, jumping down to forage while the hawk held its perch.

I thought we would be in for another bird-mammal confrontation, which our Cooper’s Hawks always seem to lose. Instead the squirrel calmly jumped into our backyard, where it resumed foraging for stray sunflower seeds.

Since then, we’ve seen the juvenile hawk on our brush pile at least once a day. Each time the sparrows wait until the hawk is on the south edge of the pile, and then they flee to safety.

 

Finally, a Cute Mammal! October 26, 2009

As part of the World Wide Web, this blog is legally and morally obligated to display photos of cute mammals at least once a quarter. However, because we show so many photos of birds and insects, we have probably fallen behind on this responsibility. Granted, we posted a photo of our kittens back in March. And many people would consider our Possum from back in February to be cute in a homely sort of way, even if you had to wade through worms and millipedes to see the cuteness. But I guess our squirrel photos tended to look either really tough, like the one from last week, or kind of demonic, because of the flash effects on their eyes.

But now, how can you say this photo of a vole from Columbus Park isn’t cute?

Who can deny that this vole is a cute, fuzzy little mammal?

It’s really round and fuzzy, right? With tiny little ears? And it eats plants? Granted the eyes are small and beady, but check this out:

The tail is really short, which mean this vole is not on of those hated house mice!

The tail (yellow arrow) is really short! That means it's not a house mouse!

If you look really close, you’ll even see some short hairs covering the tail. That’s pretty good for an urban rodent!

So, I think Neighborhood Nature has met its cuteness obligation for the fall quarter. If you disagree, then next time I go to Columbus Park I guess I’ll have to carry a tiny costume in my pocket, so I can dress our vole as a cat.

—–

If you want to get serious about voles, you can go here or here.

 

Soggy Hawk, Feisty Squirrel October 23, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Fall,Mammals,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 9:14 pm
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By this morning it had been raining off and on for more than 24 hours, so when a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk showed up in our back yard, I wasn’t surprised that it looked like this:

After all that rain, this young Cooper's Hawk was pretty soggy.

After all that rain, this young Cooper's Hawk was pretty soggy.

Gail had spotted the hawk and called me up from the basement. She had first seen the hawk on the back fence, but a squirrel had chased it off. The hawk had sought some safety in our small ash tree.

Well, guess what happened next?

At first the Gray Squirrel did not seem to pay much attention to the young Cooper's Hawk.

At first the Gray Squirrel did not seem to pay much attention to the young Cooper's Hawk, but the hawk kept an eye on the squirrel.

When the squirrel got a bit closer to the hawk, it seemed to put them both on alert.

When the squirrel got a bit closer to the hawk, it seemed to put them both on alert.

The squirrel and hawk eyed each other warily, but the squirrel did not back down.

The squirrel and hawk eyed each other warily, but the squirrel crept closer rather than backing down.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of what happened next. The squirrel edged a bit closer, and the hawk flew back to the fence.

The Cooper’s Hawk did not just sit there on the fence. Instead, it tried to shake off some of the water that had soaked its feathers:

The young Cooper's Hawk shook its head, trying to shed some water.

The young Cooper's Hawk shook its head, trying to shed some water.

It didn't seem to do much good -- the hawk's feathers still looked pretty soggy.

It didn't seem to work. The hawk's feathers still looked pretty soggy.

—–

Now, let’s zoom ahead four hours. The rain has stopped, and Aaron just got home from a friend’s house. He spotted the hawk on a utility wire in the alley. It had hung itself out, like laundry on a clothesline, trying to dry its feathers in the breeze:

Later that afternoon the Cooper's Hawk was still drying its feathers, this time but spreading them in the breeze.

Later that afternoon the Cooper's Hawk was still drying its feathers, this time but spreading them in the breeze. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

Aaron managed to get closer to the hawk, whose feathers were finally starting to dry:

Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

The young Cooper's Hawk was finally drying out. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

So far the squirrels have won every confrontation we’ve seen in our yard. However, it seems the birds have not been as lucky. We’ve found the remains of several Pigeons near our home. Maybe that’s why the daily Pigeon counts on our yard have dropped from more than 30 during hawk-free September to only nine today.

 

Ethan Has Posted Photos from Camp Chiricahua 2009 July 22, 2009

Filed under: Amphibians,Animals,Birds,Bugs,Mammals,Reptiles,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 12:25 pm
Tags: , ,

My 14-year-old son, Ethan, spent early July at Camp Chiricuhua, an Arizona birding camp for teens. It’s run by Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and co-sponsored by the American Birding Association. (Go here for more information.)

He had a really great time! He saw or heard 69 life birds, plus four kinds of Rattlesnakes, a Black Widow Spider, and a really big Tarantula. He took his camera along, and he’s been posting photos online, including dozens of kinds of birds, snakes, spiders, scorpions, insects, flash floods, and  “a caustic pit of death.”

Here are two samples. First, an Acorn Woodpecker (original here):

Acorn Woodpecker, Portal, Arizona. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Acorn Woodpecker, Portal, Arizona. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Next, a mother scorpion with babies on its back (original here):

Mother scorpion with babies on its back, Portal, Arizona. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Mother scorpion with babies on its back, Portal, Arizona. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

There are lots more photos in Ethan’s Flickr photostream. Here’s the link to his Camp Chiricahua, Arizona, set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36997518@N03/sets/72157621780821598/

Ethan’s complete photo stream, including Midwestern and (soon) California photos can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36997518@N03/

We hope you enjoy them!

—–

Ethan’s fellow camper, Benjamin, has also posted about Camp Chiricahua, 2009, on his blog: http://warblings.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/camp-chiricahua-2009/

 

On the Road: Gulls with Black Heads, and More April 19, 2009

After two nights with the weather radar showing birds migrating our way, we had to hit the road on Saturday for some Big Footprint birding.

First stop: Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago. Driving into the park we met our friend Paul, who told us he’d seen a Laughing Gull flying towards the harbor. After searching the harbor, harbor mouth, pier, beach, and open lake for more than an hour, we finally found the Laughing Gull sitting on a dock in the middle of the harbor. Here’s the dock, looking west from the entrance of the sanctuary:

The docks at Montrose Harbor, The red arrow shows where we finally found the Laughing Gull.

The docks at Montrose Harbor. The red arrow shows where we finally found the Laughing Gull.

And here’s the bird, resting with some Ring-billed Gulls that sometimes moved and blocked our view:

The Laughing Gull (with black head) is resting in the center of the photo. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The Laughing Gull (with black head) is resting in the center of the photo. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The bird was too far out for Ethan to get good photos with his Sony DSC-H50 camera. For the record, here’s a digiscoped image, that shows its black head and dark gray mantle (back and folded wings). If you look closely you can also see its heavy, dark red bill and the broken white ring that surrounds most of the eye:

The Laughing Gull is resting in front of a somewhat larger Ring-billed Gull.

The Laughing Gull is resting in front of a somewhat larger Ring-billed Gull.

The time spent searching for the Laughing Gull was not wasted, because we found lots of other great birds. Ethan got a photo of a Common Loon near the entrance to the harbor:

The Coomon Loon sawm close, attracting the attention of both birders and fisher folk along the shore.

The Common Loon swam close, attracting the attention of both birders and fisher folk along the shore. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Also during our search at Montrose, I saw my first Barn Swallow of the year. Aaron and I watched a Wilson’s Snipe take flight from the dunes. As we followed it through our binoculars, we saw a Peregrine Falcon chasing it, then giving up half way down the beach. And, as the radar predicted, we saw many recent migrants to our area. Most of these birds we had seen earlier this spring at Columbus Park (like Hermit Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Swamp Sparrow, and both kinglets) or on birding trips to central Illinois (like a Vesper Sparrow near the beach). We couldn’t find the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that Paul and others had seen earlier that morning.

We were also pleased to meet many of our birder friends exploring Montrose, plus a few followers of this blog. It was great to see lots of beginning birders, including some on a bird walk sponsored by Science Chicago. (Like many new birders, we still carry our field guide almost all the time, but it’s really worn, and we open it less often).

After a quick stop at North Park Village Nature Center to buy me some new binoculars at the Eagle Optics special sale, we headed south, then east to Indiana. This part of our trip was inspired by posts by Jeff McCoy on the Indiana birders e-mail list. Our first stop, south of I-80 in Gary, Indiana, produced an Eared Grebe, plus many ducks. The Grebe was a year bird for us, but it was way too far out to get a photo. Our next stop was on U.S. 30, a mile or so east of its intersection with Indiana 39. We looked at a series of flooded farm fields along the highway and nearby gravel roads:

Ethan and Aaron scanned the field for shorebirds -- finding hundreds of them!

Ethan and Aaron scanned the field for shorebirds -- and found hundreds of them!

We finally had the mass shorebird experience we’ve been searching for all spring — hundreds of Pectoral Sandpipers foraged at the margins of the “fluddles” (as birders tend to call them):

Can you find all seven Pectoral Sandpipers? We found several hundred of them. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Can you find all seven Pectoral Sandpipers? We found several hundred of them. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Here’s a closer view, showing the distinctive pattern on the chest:

Birders use size, bill shape and color, leg color, steaking on the chest, and several other features to distinguish Pectoral Sandpipers from similar, related species. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Birders use size, bill shape and color, leg color, steaking on the chest, and several other features to distinguish Pectoral Sandpipers from similar, related species. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

There were four other species of shorebirds nearby: Least Sandpiper (another year bird for us), Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, and (of course) Killdeer. We also found our second species of gull-with-a-black-head swimming in the fuddles near the sandpipers — Bonaparte’s Gull:

The smaller overall size, paler mantle, and smaller black bill help distinguish this resting Bonaparte's Gull from the Laughing Gull we saw earlier today. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The smaller overall size, paler mantle, and smaller black bill help distinguish this resting Bonaparte's Gull from the Laughing Gull we saw earlier today. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We still had several hours until sunset, so we headed south and then west through Indiana. We didn’t find any new birds at first, but we did see some really beautiful pigs grazing along the road. We also got our first bug spatters on the windshield, and Ethan got his first mosquito bite of spring.

We ended up at Willow Slough, near Morocco, Indiana, just before sunset, where we heard our first Bobwhite of the year. After sunset we drove near a marsh, just sat in the car, and listened. We heard Spring Peeper peeping, American Toad trilling, and American Woodcock mating calls. Then, finally, the boys heard what we had been listening for — the grunt of a Virginia Rail in the distance. (I, unfortunately, was on the wrong side of the car.)

We finally reached home at about 10:30 p.m. And when Aaron gets home from Sunday School, we’ll probably hit the road again, despite the threat of rain.

—–

So, tomorrow the kids go back to school, and I’ll have a week of Big Green birding to catch up with new birds near our home and at Columbus Park. This morning I heard White-throated Sparrows singing from the neighbors’ backyards. I wonder what the warm winds later this week will send our way?

 

Friday’s Trip: Lots of Sparrows, Lots of Distractions April 5, 2009

Friday, April 3rd, was our seventh day of Big Break Birding. The boys and I were trying to see how many kinds of birds we could see during spring break, while also lengthening our year lists for 2009. We decided to leave our neighborhood and head south in search of rare sparrows and early shorebirds.

The shorebirds were a bust — Killdeer was the only kind we saw. However, we saw 15 different kinds of sparrows — including rare ones like Harris’s Sparrow and Le Conte’s Sparrow — at some unlikely sounding places, including a sod farm, an organic basil farm, a swine research facility, and a graveyard fencerow. (See the bottom of this post for details.)

Unfortunately, most sparrows don’t sit still to get their photos taken. Ethan was lucky to get this photo of a Vesper Sparrow out the car window:

Vesper Sparrow posing on a stalk of corn stubble in a field near Clinton Lake, Illinois. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Vesper Sparrow posing on a stalk of corn stubble in a field near Clinton Lake, Illinois. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

This Eastern Towhee was less cooperative — it’s partially blocked by twigs:

This Eastern Towhee was watching us from a small tree at the University of Illinois Swine Research Unit.

This Eastern Towhee was watching us from a small tree at the University of Illinois Swine Research Unit. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Eastern Meadowlarks are a kind of blackbird, not a sparrow, but they pose well for a camera:

Eastern Meadowlark in a sod farm field near Momence, Illinois. Photograph by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Eastern Meadowlark in a sod farm field near Momence, Illinois. Photograph by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

By late afternoon we had reached Clinton Lake in central Illinois. We were running out of new birds to see, so we allowed ourselves to be distracted by other things, like plants and mammals. We found lots of beaver-chewed stumps and logs near the spillway:

Beavers cut this tree and then ate the bark off the fallen log. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Beavers cut this tree and then ate the bark off the fallen log. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The beavers here cut down trees for food but live in the river banks below the human-built dam, rather than building a dam of their own.

One advantage of traveling south is you get to see spring flowers days or weeks before they bloom near our home. These Dutchman’s Breeches were particularly beautiful:

Whoever named this plant thought the flowers looked like a Dutch man's pants, hanging upside down.

"Breeches" are pants -- whoever named this plant thought the flowers looked like a Dutchman's pants, hanging upside down. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

I taught the boys a trick with a woodland plant called Bedstraw — it sticks to almost anything:

Bedstraw stuck to Aaron's shirt. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Bedstraw stuck to Aaron's shirt. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Bedstraw stuck to Aaron's hair. (Aron looks like he's deciding where to stick the Bedstraw next.) Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Bedstraw stuck to Aaron's hair. (Aaron looks like he's deciding where to stick the Bedstraw next.) Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Tricks aside, sometimes all you need to enjoy the outdoors is a few dead leaves floating in a lake:

Leaves on Lake. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Leaves on Lake. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We ended the day with 112 species on our Big Break Birding list and 145 species on Aaron’s 2009 year list.

—–

Just for the record, here’s a post we submitted to IBET, the Illinois birders’ email list. It provides details about where we went and what we saw:

Subject: IBET HARRIS’S and LE CONTE’S SPARROWS still at the U of I swine farms
From: Eric Gyllenhaal
Date: Sat, 04 Apr 2009 14:04:08 -0000

The boys and I headed south from Oak Park in search of sparrows and early shorebirds. We got 15 species of sparrows, but no shorebirds other than Killdeer.

The fields near H & E Sod Farms, east of Momence, Illinois, held 3 VESPER SPARROWS (along 1250N) and a dozen LAPLAND LONGSPURS, plus a few AMERICAN PIPITS (in the bare field northeast of the intersection of 1250N and 13500E).

The Urbana Swine Research facility, on Hazelwood just east of 1st St., held the greatest diversity of sparrows. The HARRIS’S SPARROW was in a large brush pile just east of the buildings, and the LE CONTE’S was in a brushy field north of the road. Other sparrows here: Eastern Towhee, American Tree, Field, Savannah, Fox, Song, Swamp, plus lots of White-crowned and Dark-eyed Juncos, plus several Brown Thrashers. To get Chipping and White-throated Sparrows, we drove what Google Map’s calls Grffith Drive, south of St. Mary’s Rd. on the northwest side of the research park. There were also lots of other sparrows along this lane, including an Oregon-type Junco and more Towhees.

We then headed west for our first-ever visit to Clinton Lake. Best finds: First-of-year Rough-winged Swallows south of the spillway, and dozens of Bonaparte’s Gulls and a few Common Loons seen from westside access points. There were also a few hundred ducks seen in the far distance, along and east of the dam. They looked like mostly Scaup, with some Bufflehead, Redheads, and probably other species.

Our species count for Spring Break so far: 112 species.

Eric, Ethan, and Aaron Gyllenhaal
Oak Park, Cook County, Illinois

 

Our “Spark Bird” Was the Rabbit We Didn’t Buy February 28, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Children's Interests,Mammals — saltthesandbox @ 7:53 am
Tags: , , , ,

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.

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.

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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.