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Science Laurisa Styles

by Laurisa W. Reyes

Teaching science to a young child can seem an overwhelming task for many parents. Even though there are a variety of texts available, allowing children to “discover” these lessons on their own can be far more effective. When children are fascinated with the world around them, their natural curiosity will drive them to seek out answers to their questions. They will, in a sense, teach themselves.

My four year old daughter, Carissa, has had various interests over the past year. Dinosaurs, wolves, sharks... I never say, “today we are going to study sharks.” These are interests she develops on her own. But in order to capitalize on each interest as it comes, we spend a great deal of time in the library. While other preschool aged children check out books about Barney and Spot, Carissa piles up books on fossils, the anatomy of whales, and raptors of the wild. She knows the names of a dozen dinosaurs that I can’t even pronounce. She can even explain the difference between dolphins and porpoises. We have checked out just about every National Geographic documentary available and frequently visit our local Natural History museums and zoos. But despite all the wealth of information we have discovered through these means, the lesson that impacted her the most was taught right in our own home.

Two years ago our family inherited a white dove named Coo-coo from my mother-in-law. A year later Coo-coo laid two small, white eggs. My daughter was amazed. We allowed her to handle the infertile eggs which prompted an endless string of questions. What are eggs made of? How did Coo-coo make the eggs? And so forth. Being the teacher/parent that I am, I thought it would be interesting to turn this situation into a full-blown science project.

Shortly thereafter I purchased a male dove which my daughter named Bottle. (That’s what happens when you allow a four year old to choose a name.) After some initial aggression on Coo-coo’s part, the two birds finally bonded. A week after they first mated Coo-coo laid two more eggs. This time they were fertile. We observed in wonder as Bottle and Coo-coo took turns sitting on the nest and as they periodically turned the eggs with their beaks.

We counted down the days on the calendar and two weeks after being laid, the eggs hatched. The hatchlings, which we named Paloma and Noah, were the ugliest creatures I had ever seen, but they were our babies and we loved them. We were captivated by the natural parenting skills both adult doves exhibited with their young and were able to watch as they fed them, preened their new feathers, encouraged them to leave the nest, and taught them to fly. Five weeks after hatching, Paloma and Noah were fully grown.

The entire experience has been one grand adventure for all of us. My daughter has learned invaluable lessons that she could never have learned from a textbook. Not only has she learned the ins and outs of avian care and breeding, but she also has gained a respect for life.

For those interested in trying this “project” at home, I recommend purchasing a pair of ring neck doves or budgies (parakeets) as both species can be very tame and inexpensive. Budgies can even learn to talk when trained.

Before purchasing any bird, be certain to do as much research as possible. Magazines and books can be found at any library or bookstore. A good place to start is reading back issues of Bird Talk magazine. The internet is also a valuable resource. There you will find Bird Breeder On-Line as well as other related websites.

Once you feel somewhat prepared you will need to purchase a cage. For a pair of doves, the cage should be a minimum of 24” long, 18” deep, and 18” high. For budgies the cage could be about 18” square. A good rule of thumb when choosing a cage is no cage can be too big. Two or three suitable perches should be provided as well as dishes for water, seed, grit, and fresh food. Install an appropriately sized nest inside then place the cage in a well-lit location but not in direct sunlight or near an open window.

When selecting your birds, it is vital that you acquire an unrelated pair, meaning the male and female are not related to each other. This is to avoid interbreeding which can lead to deformities in the chicks. The best way to do this is to purchase the birds from a reputable breeder or acquire them from two separate sources. If you buy them from separate sources be sure to have them checked by an avian vet and quarantine them for a minimum of 30 days. After this time the birds can be introduced to each other.

Finding two birds of the opposite sex may not be an easy task. Most common birds are not dimorphic. You cannot tell them apart by appearance. DNA testing performed by an experienced avian vet will cost approximately $25 per bird. (This procedure is not recommended for budgies due to their small size.) Sometimes the vet or experienced bird owner will be able to tell by the pelvic bones. A male’s are close together while a females’ are spaced apart, though this is not always accurate. If you decide to take your chances, be sure to get a written guarantee that if the bird you choose turns out to be the wrong sex, you will be able to exchange it for another.

Once you have your birds in their cage, allow them at least a week to become acclimated to their new surroundings. Place the cage in a quiet location or keep it partially covered. If they feel comfortable in their new home they should bond. They will begin preening each other’s feathers, sitting side by side, chattering back and forth. If you notice any aggression between the birds (pecking, feather plucking, excessive biting), separate the birds immediately.

Breeding birds in not an exact science. It will occur when the birds are ready. Be prepared to take your birds or their offspring to the vet if you suspect illness or injury. They are living creatures and require quality care and attention. When provided for the way they deserve, owning birds can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for the whole family.

If bird breeding seems too big a commitment for you, other related activities can be just as rewarding. Planting a butterfly garden is a wonderful opportunity to allow your child to plan and construct his own miniature habitat. Kits where children can raise their own butterflies for release are available in many toy catalogs.

Try attracting wild birds to your yard by hanging feeders in strategic places. My children never cease to be amazed when a hummingbird comes to feed outside our kitchen window or a bluebird perches in our pine tree.

Whatever project you choose, learning about birds and other living creatures will instill an appreciation of nature and a love of science in your child.

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