Thursday, May 26, 2011

Backyard Dinosaurs

“Can we go see the barn owls one more time? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease?” That was my daughter Jade a couple of Saturdays ago. “Ok, ok,” I gave in. “Let’s go!” We found the owl couple perched in the rafters of the barn just as we’d left them an hour before, with the tan-and-speckled female wedged up against the snowy-white male. Only the male cracked open his eyes as we snuck back in for another peek. Through binoculars, their striking, heart-shaped faces appeared unreal, almost otherworldly.

It was International Migratory Bird Day, and a nearby park, Muir Woods National Monument, had organized a bird walk in celebration. Jade and I joined a group of about 15 other kids and adults. Most of us carried binoculars. Our intrepid lead birder, Dave Mackenzie, toted an even more powerful spotting scope mounted on a tripod. As we met him in the beach parking lot, he pointed at the scope and said, “Check out the Pacific Loons. We’ve seen hundreds fly by this morning heading north to their Arctic breeding grounds.” It took Jade a minute to get the hang of looking through the eyepiece, but then her eyes went wide with amazement as she watched the black-throated fish-eaters zoom past one after the other.

“Turkey vultures,” someone yelled, and all heads tilted skyward. Jade and I are accustomed to seeing “TVs,” as they are affectionately known. But today, surrounded by this group of bird-lovers, the two-toned undersides of those giant, soaring wings took on new meaning. Ravens, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and an Anna’s Hummingbird were quickly added to the list before we set off for the nearby marsh. A host of Red-Winged Blackbirds perched on cattails was there to greet us, flashing their brilliant red epaulets while their piercing metallic voices rang out. A Snowy Egret attempting merely to fly over the marsh was immediately attacked by three of the dive-bombing blackbirds. The kids were enamored with two families of Mallard Ducks, laughing as the yellow, waddling chicks did their level best to keep up. Meanwhile I was staring through the scope at a male Northern Flicker, completely absorbed by his red “mustache” and black-speckled body. A huge highlight for both of us was climbing a nearby hill to get a “bird’s eye” view into the nest of a Red-tailed Hawk. The large stick nest, nestled atop a Monterey Cypress tree, held two gangly white chicks, while one of the parents kept a steadfast watch nearby.

The surprising truth of the matter is that every single one of these winged wonders is a dinosaur, members of the same family as T. rex. All living birds are the direct descendants of small, feathered dinosaurs that lived more than 150 million years ago. Thus, in a very real sense, those raucous Red-Winged Blackbirds are backyard dinosaurs, offering a vibrant window into the distant past. In recent years, fossils of more than a dozen different varieties of feathered (nonavian) dinosaurs have been unearthed in China. So similar are many of these animals to birds that it’s difficult to tell one from the other; indeed the two are often confused. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct, then. With over 10,000 different living species, they far outnumber mammals (closer to 6,000 species). The Mesozoic Era is often called “The Age of Dinosaurs,” and the succeeding Cenozoic Era, in which we live, “The Age of Mammals.” But no, it seems that we still live in the Age of Dinosaurs. (To be fair, whether your metric is number of individuals, variation, or total biomass, the past four billion years are best regarded as the “Age of Bacteria,” but we macro-sized creatures tend to overlook the microbial world.)

In previous posts, I have bemoaned the recent startling transformation in children’s leisure time. A child growing up today is likely to spend 90% less time outdoors than a child born just one generation ago. How can we possibly build sustainable communities if people don’t care about the places they live. And how are we to care if we don’t spend any time experiencing our local natural communities? Robert Michael Pyle has referred to this frightening state of affairs as, “the extinction of experience.” [1]

I grew up playing outside and fascinated by all things nature-oriented. As a parent, I am very conscious of exposing my daughter to the nonhuman world around our home. However, I’ve found that taking her on hikes is not always welcomed. “My legs hurt daddy,” is what I hear after the first half mile—in spite of the fact that she can run around all day long with her friends. So I’ve learned to replace the word “hike” with “adventure,” a tip shared by another frustrated parent. Adults tend to be goal-oriented; when out hiking, this means reaching a particular destination. Kids are more interested in playing. By making the outing more about the moment, and less about the goal, I’ve found it much easier to keep Jade engaged and happy.

But, to retain your parental credibility, you still need to deliver on the “adventure.” This is where the magic of birds (i.e., dinosaurs) comes in. Most kids think trees and other plants are pretty ho-hum. And the majority of animals out there can be tough to find, unless you focus on the creepy-crawlies beneath your feet. But, in addition to being beautiful, active, and diverse, birds are nearly ubiquitous. A set of binoculars and an identification book (the Sibley field guides are the birding gold-standard) are all you need to get started, though feeders are an excellent way to attract birds literally into your backyard. In addition to making identifications, it’s fun to watch what birds do. (While I was out walking a few months back, a large raven flew toward me about 20 feet off the deck and inverted itself just as it passed overhead. I just stood there stunned, suddenly reminded of Tom Cruise executing the same show-off aerobatics in Top Gun.)

Now, added to all this is the T. rex angle. As I know from direct experience in my role as Dr. Scott the Paleontologist on Dinosaur Train, most kids love dinosaurs. So what better way to entice youngsters to go outside than to offer the carrot of seeing living, breathing dinosaurs?! In short, we desperately need to connect kids to local nature—both for their sake and that of the local nature—and backyard dinosaurs are arguably the most powerful tool to make these connections happen. In my recent book [2], I called for a “backyard dinosaur revolution.” So how about it? Are you in?

Jade and I have decided to get more serious about birding and begin keeping a “life list,” a logbook of bird identifications and observations. So now our “hikes” have become “treasure hunts” as we look to add more feathered neighbors to our respective tallies. Mom is excited to join in too. Just yesterday Jade asked, for the umpteenth time, “Daddy, when can we go back to see the barn owls?”


Pyle, R. M. 1998. The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland. Lyons Press, Guilford, CT.

Sampson, S. D. 2009. Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.

All images derived from National Geographic: