For the birds: Expat author publishes wildlife e-book for kids


Encourage a Child to Watch Birds is a fun little guide to starting a hobby with children that slowly introduces them to biodiversity and the world beyond the computer

From the terrace to the forest

Do you ever find yourself checking out an educational kid’s book, sensing that it might just be the right introduction you need to one subject or another?

Local authors Benno Barnard and Geert Van Istendael, for instance, were certainly on to this when they wrote Een geschiedenis van Belgie (A History of Belgium), a book that has taught me much. The subtitle says it all: Voor nieuwsgierige kinderen (en hun ouders) – For Curious Children (And Their Parents).

It’s with this blend of curiosity and … inexpertness, shall we say … that parents will delve with their kids into Encourage a Child to Watch Birds. In English, the e-book bills itself as “non-screen ideas”. Author Denzil Walton is British but has lived in Flanders, near Leuven, for more than 30 years. A technical writer by trade, he is a great outdoors enthusiast and the author of several books on nature walks near Brussels as well as the Discovering Belgium blog.

“When I was a boy, I had many hobbies centred around nature,” says Walton. “Birdwatching, breeding butterflies, tracking mammals, building a garden pond, wildflower photography … Many of these hobbies I have carried into my adult life and put into practice professionally and with my own children.”

In an ever-digital world, however, it’s no surprise that kids are losing interest in these kinds of activities – particularly kids who lives in cities. “Children are active on screens for an increasingly large proportion of their lives,” says Walton, who has a three-year-old grandson of his own. “These books aim to activate children, sharpen their senses and show them the fun to be had away from the screen.”

So while the book does get kids away from the TV and tablet and into the real world, it also introduces them to a form of wildlife during a crucial time in environmental history. “Birdwatching can improve a child’s appreciation of the natural world, help them to understand ecological concepts like food chains and biodiversity and introduce them to basic nature conservation practices.”

And yes, he says, “I know it’s ironic that non-screen ideas are provided in an e-book! But none of the ideas involved screen-based activities such as posting on social media, watching TV or searching the internet.”

Birds are amazing. They are intelligent, build incredible nests, migrate vast distances and use a variety of tools

- Author Denzil Walton

Indeed, Encourage a Child to Watch Birds, which is a practical, short guide, suggests that you buy actual bird books and that children record their observations in a journal by hand. But it doesn’t start there.

Wisely, Walton introduces the idea of birdwatching slowly and steadily, with the first chapter dedicated to heading to a park and checking out the ducks. Chapter 2 takes kids into their own back gardens. From there, he talks about exploring bird books, picking up a pair of binoculars and learning how to feed and house birds.

But he realises not every child has a back garden or a good place to hang a birdhouse. One of the reasons Walton chose birdwatching as a subject is because birds are everywhere. Even kids living in apartment blocks will see birds out of the window, in the trees as they walk down the street, nesting under overpasses and in the canals. Outside of insects, birds are the only form of wildlife that we see and hear every single day.

“Watching birds can be done from the comfort of your home,” confirms Walton, “on the walk to school, on a family bike ride or on a journey in the car. Birds really are everywhere – in gardens and parks, on rivers and in the sea, up mountains and on cliffs. Birds can be watched at any time of the year, in any weather. Even in the dark!”

It’s also something your child can do alone, or with you. The book can also be fun for other adults in a kid’s life to start a special hobby for them to do together or for teachers to launch birdwatching projects. Every chapter – all of them just two or three pages – talks about a certain subject then lists projects to do together in support of the subject.

But Encourage a Child to Watch Birds is also just interesting to read. Did you know, for instance, that owls vomit up pellets? That’s because they swallow their prey – like mice or small birds – down whole but can’t digest the hard bits, like beaks and bones. So they regurgitate that in the form of an owl pellet. Collecting and dissecting these things is the focus of chapter 10.

“Birds are amazing,” says Walton. “They can soar, dive and hover, walk, run, jump and hop. They can be bold, shy, inquisitive or funny. They are intelligent, can build incredible nesting structures, migrate vast distances, perform stunning courtship rituals and use a variety of tools. It just seems logical that one would want to investigate these wonderful creatures closer.”

If Encourage a Child to Watch Birds does well, Walton has ideas for other Encourage a Child books, like learning about trees and caring for the planet.

Photos: The hawfinch is one of many breeds you’re likely to see in parks and back gardens ©Natuurpunt; search for owl pellets in fields and forests ©Rollin Verlinde - Vilda/Natuurpunt