It was one of those early March days that should have been miserable. Snow flanked the streets in jagged, gray piles. The overcast sky was sallow, and sharp gusts of wind bit our cheeks as my son and I began a walk around one of our local city lakes. Common sense dictated a quick retreat into the warmth of our car, yet something kept us outside. It was a sound, compellingly high and persistent over the rattle of the wind.
Glancing around eagerly, we finally spotted them: four black-capped chickadees hopping between branches in the shoreline shrubbery. Just across a narrow arm of the lake, an American robin skimmed over the snow. And there!—the crimson flash of a male northern cardinal in a backyard tree. We stopped to listen as the tiny chickadees, rotund in their fluffed plumage, called back and forth to each other: “Fee-bee!” The robin’s distant chuckle overlapped with a cardinal’s echoing “cheer, cheer, cheer!” As we stood, grinning and shivering in the barren winter landscape, the birds sang for the imminence of spring.
“What does the study of birds do for the imagination, that high power possessed by humans alone, that lifts them upward step by step into new realms of discovery and joy?”
Natural historian Neltje Blanchan De Graff Doubleday—who published simply as Blanchan—already knew the answer to this question when she posed it in the preface to her 1907 book, Birds Every Child Should Know
(University of Iowa Press, 2000). As they watch birds, children not only learn to appreciate the beautiful diversity of life on Earth but are also inspired to greater heights of curiosity, creativity, and compassion. Maybe you’ve already experienced this effect, as I have with my son. Or perhaps you are looking for a resource that suggests the idea to others. Birds Every Child Should Know
is the kind of book that speaks to readers at every level. As was common in natural history guides of her era, Blanchan incorporated personal observations, insights, and folklore along with life history facts and scientific data on each of more than one hundred common North American bird species. Each profile is just a few pages long, perfect for a quick read at bedtime, during a car ride, or—ideally—while outside among the birds themselves.
Blanchan’s lilted phrasing is old-fashioned but enduring, much like our favorite classic children’s stories and poetry. This makes the book fun to read aloud, requiring children to seek just the right intonation and pace to fully capture the author’s voice.
A wonderful example is found in this description of blue jays, from the chapter called “Rascals We Must Admire.”
“In summer he keeps quiet, but throws off all restraint in autumn. Hear him hammering at an acorn some frosty morning! How vigorous his motions, how alert and independent!”
Here’s another reason why I love Blanchan's writing. One day, while listening to me enthuse about seeing a yellow warbler in the yard, my son spontaneously recalled why these tiny birds migrate in the autumn. “We read it in that lady’s book,” he shrugged, seeing my raised eyebrows. He was right—but that reading had taken place almost a year before.
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“Rather than live where the skies are gray and the air is cold, this adventurous little warbler will travel two thousand miles or more to follow the sun…. Of course they do not undertake long journeys merely for pleasure, as wealthy tourists do. They must migrate to find food; and as insects are most plentiful in warm weather, you see why these atoms of animation keep in perpetual motion.”
Children today are accustomed to books as bold and busy as computer screens. Don’t let the simple layout of Birds Every Child Should Know
be a deterrent. Blanchan’s language will bring vivid pictures to mind—no graphics required. The University of Iowa Press has also tucked twenty-four detailed sketches into the heart of the book. Graphic artist Christine Stetter
’s work is like the delicious cream in the middle of the cookie. (You can find several editions from other publishers, some with photos. I have not looked at copies of these.)
Despite its generally lighthearted tone, Blanchan incorporated a pointed message into the preface of Birds for adult readers who chose to acknowledge it.
“If the thought of a tiny hummingbird, a mere atom in the universe, migrating from New England to Central America will not stimulate a child’s imagination, then all the tales of fairies and giants and beautiful princesses and wicked witches will not cause his sluggish fancy to roam. Poetry and music, too, would fail to stir it out of the deadly commonplace.”
Like some of her contemporaries, Blanchan recognized that the landscape of American childhood was changing. When Lewis and Clark set off to explore the West in 1804, just six percent of Americans lived in cities. By the time she wrote Birds Every Child Should Know, that figure had swelled to 40 percent—a trend that showed no signs of slowing. How would children learn to appreciate nature in painfully crowded cities, with little access to free time or space? And as new generations spread across an increasingly industrialized nation, what would become of America’s wilderness?
Educators and conservationists of the Progressive Era responded by promoting nature study in schools. Children deserved to experience nature directly, they said, rather than through what Blanchan called “training of the brain.” The more spontaneous and unstructured this interaction could be, said Blanchan, the better. She envisioned that time spent outside would spur “the growth of the heart,” maturing children with a sympathetic connection to nature and motivation to preserve it for the future.
The United States is now overwhelmingly urban. Once again, many Americans express concern about children’s lack of “green time.” For them, Neltje Blanchan’s advice will still ring true. Slow down and watch the birds.
Curious about the birds in your backyard? So are ornithologists! Solve the mystery by participating in the upcoming annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Click above to find out more!