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Birds in our books

October 07, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated twice each year to highlight the importance of these wonderful strong birds that travel across deserts, oceans and mountain ranges. This year’s theme is Birds Connect Our World to draw attention to the necessity of the conservation and restoration of “the ecological connectivity and integrity of ecosystems that support the natural movements of migratory birds” (WMBD website). Why are these birds so important? And how can we benefit from learning about them in the English classroom? 

Growing up in a small town, as a child I looked forward to welcoming swallows and storks each spring. Their arrival meant the official start of summertime for all of us. They were seen as messengers of good weather, faraway lands, and they also represented loyalty. They returned to the same nests, and they spent long days repairing them or building new ones. Seeing these birds has become quite a treat in large cities. While we may be lucky enough to see swallows over our big, busy cities, storks are associated with the peace and tranquility of the countryside. These big birds need to stay close to lakes, swamps and rivers where they can find food for themselves and their families.

Apart from being symbols of the changing seasons, these birds also teach us a lot about how connected and fragile our world is. An empowering thought for our students is that by learning about these birds, they can also learn how they can change little things in their own environments to protect their feathered friends.

Stories are powerful tools in this learning experience as they bring distant issues closer to our students. First, we share some essential information about migratory birds. Then, we tell you about six stories featuring birds for young learners, teens and adults.

Migratory birds: a language lesson

Vocabulary building

You can start this lesson on birds by brainstorming bird names. Let the students suggest names in both English and their mother tongue, providing translations when they don’t know them. Which of these birds are migratory? With higher level students introduce the word formation set below.

  • migrate - migration - migratory

The look at adjectives to describe these birds, for example:

  • strong - powerful - persistent - brave - fast - small

What dangers do they have to face during their long journeys?

These birds need to fly across vast deserts and oceans, and there are several dangers in their flight paths. Just think about airplanes, wind turbines, powerlines, reflective surfaces (glass buildings), and even the illegal killing and trade of birds. You can read more about the issues these birds face, and talk about small acts that can help protect these birds in your own environment.

How can your students help these birds?

Are there any large glass windows without markings to warn the birds? What can we do to help them survive? How can you make your own garden or school park bird-friendly? 

What different kinds of migratory birds exist?

Look for interesting migratory bird species in your own country, for example:

goose - falcon - osprey - wood thrush

What do these birds look like? 

Which one is the largest? Which one is the most colourful?

Finally, how do birds connect our world? 

Ask your students to think about the symbolic meaning of this connection and also their influence on the environment (pollination, pest control). Read more about these questions on the World Migratory Bird Day website.

Six stories

When you have become familiar with different birds, you can pick a story and read it in class. If you decide to let the students read the books at home, you can introduce the story by talking about the cover, the illustrations and reading the blurb. Remember to do the Before Reading activities as they prepare students for the vocabulary, the grammar and the theme of the story. Apart from migratory birds, our list includes birds which are not specifically migratory but illustrate the importance of birds in nature.

The Thirsty Tree
written by Adrián N. Bravi, illustrated by Valentina Russello
Young Learners level C / CEFT pre-A1

In this story, Cloudbreak, a little bird helps a thirsty tree to find some water. Her help has positive consequences which are expressed through the colour changes on the pages: from earth colours the pages turn into bright greens as water brings life back to the tree, thanks to the little bird. 

Question: How do trees help birds?

The Thirsty Tree new logo


The Big Fire
written by Rick Sampedro, illustrated by Giacomo Moresi
Young Learners level C / CEFT pre-A1

This story takes us to a jungle, where a big, dangerous fire threatens the animals. A group of birds try to save the jungle from the fire.

Question: What birds can you find in the jungle?

HELBLING The Big Fire cover

The Happy Prince and The Nightingale and the Rose
written by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Maria Cleary, illustrated by Daria Petrilli
Teen and adult learners, Red Series Level 1, CEFR 1

In these two famous stories, we meet two exceptional birds: a swallow and a nightingale.

In The Happy Prince a little swallow stops on its journey towards the sun and helps a big-hearted Prince to bring happiness to his people. In The Nightingale and the Rose a songbird understands more about love than a young man does.

Question: What is the difference between swallows, house martins and swifts?

The Happy Prince and The Nightingale and the Rose


Jack’s Endless Summer
written by Martyn Hobbs, illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini
Teen learners, Red Series Level 1, CEFR 1

In this story we meet Jack, one of the Westbourne Kids. He doesn't know what to do during the hot, boring summer holiday. One evening, when some boys hurt a hawk, Jack decides to help the bird and this experience transforms his summer into a real adventure.

Question: How are hawks useful for the environment? 

Jack's Endless Summer new logo


Operation Osprey
written by David A. Hill, illustrated by Giovanni Da Re
Teen and adult learners, Blue Series Level 4, CEFR A2/B1

Two friends, Don and Mike live in the sleepy town of Saltley, and they both love birdwatching. Their lives suddenly become exciting when Mike spots a pair of osprey at a nearby lake, and they decide to protect the birds so that they can make a nest. But real action only begins when Mr Roberts takes an interest in the birds and the boys become suspicious.

Question: What do ospreys eat?

Operation Osprey

The Albatross
written by Scott Lauder and Walter McGregor, illustrated by Francesca Protopapa
Teen and adult learners, Blue Series Level 5, CEFR B1

Levy, an old Greek sailor, takes on his last job and discovers that the cargo on board is not what he expects. He finds over 40 cages with a falcon - a protected species - in each of them. We also meet Molly, an American teenager, who finds a body on the beach when she's walking her dog. We find out what  happens to Levy when he tells the captain about the birds, and what Molly does when the body she found disappears. This exciting crime story reveals how these cases are connected and raises the question of animal smuggling.

Question: What other endangered or protected birds do you know?

The Albatross cover


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