ISLAND BIRDING | Field guides can help develop a love of nature in children

“Give a kid a field guide.”

I heard these words recently at an Audubon Society lecture and have taken them to heart for my holiday shopping. The speaker suggested a guide to birds, butterflies, trees, wildflowers, insects, amphibians, snakes or tropical fish, any topic that sparks an interest in nature.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., more than 100 studies have shown that getting closer to nature reduces stress and promotes a feeling of well-being in children and adults. Add to that the fact that the day after Sept. 11, 2001, attendance spiked in New York City’s Central Park as people looked to nature for solace and healing.

Yet, fewer and fewer young people have a chance to become connected to the natural world. A study in the 1990s found that the average young person can identify 100 different corporate logos, but can’t name 10 local birds.

Several years ago, I walked past a pond in a small wooded urban park. Eight mallard ducks lived on the pond. A young mother sat on a bench reading the newspaper while her two sons threw rocks at the ducks. The ducks scurried away trying to find safety, but the pond was small and I expect the ducks were molting their flight feathers. These ducks were accustomed to being thrown handouts so they turned back to the children expecting tidbits.

I watched for several minutes hoping the mother would notice and stop the children, but she remained immersed in her reading.

I approached her and pointed out that the children were disturbing the wild ducks. The mother couldn’t understand why I was alarmed and said that the children didn’t mean to hurt them. She said they loved to visit the pond and throw rocks at the ducks.

Months later I learned of E.O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia.”

The term describes having a deep love of the living. Wilson claims that we all have an innate need, a biological urge, to relate directly with other living organisms and the natural world. He further expounds that if this affiliation is hampered, our development as functional humans is somewhat arrested, and that down the road the results for both humans and ecological communities could be alarming.

It is sadly apparent that alienation from the natural world goes hand in glove with willingness to exploit and desecrate it.

Was throwing rocks at the ducks a misdirected attempt to interact with nature? Clearly the children at the pond enjoyed watching the birds scurry away and listening to their loud quacks. Sadly, they didn’t value or know how to create a positive relationship with the ducks.

Imagine the joy those children could have had poring over a field guide of the local duck species. They would have learned the name mallard. Photos or drawings would have pointed out the males’ bright green heads and striking body plumage. And that mottled brown and white feathers identify the females.

The children could have learned that the mallards build a nest on the ground in thick brush and lay as many as a dozen eggs. I expect they would have been surprised to learn that only the female mallards quack loudly. The males make a soft muttering sound.

Knowing that, I doubt they would have thrown another rock. With the help of an adult, they could notice as the ducks molted twice a year. Watched the ducks pair up in the winter and anxiously awaited the appearance of baby ducks in spring.

Learning about that mallard flock could have helped them become better stewards of the earth and perhaps encourage budding naturalists. In no time they could have learned at least 10 bird species that live around the pond.

It all begins with a field guide.

Do you have young people on your gifting list? Check out your local bookstores for an age-appropriate field guide that would interest you both.

As part of that holiday gift, offer to take them out into nature to find some species from the field guide. If you need help, contact the Audubon Society or other outdoor organizations for suggestions of family-oriented field trips.

Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” She can be reached at wood@whidbey.com.

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