5 reasons to buy a field guide for a child in your life

cover of field guide to the birds of Australia

Anyone with small children in their life knows that buying a gift for a child is a treacherous minefield.

When you turn up at a five-year-old’s birthday party with gift in hand, the aim is to elicit a squeal of delight from the child in question upon the tearing open of the paper. At this point, your job is done and you can let out a sigh of relief. Nothing after that moment matters.We know that toy will be nowhere to be seen a year from now. We know it’s likely to make its tired way to the household waste in less than six months, or else be buried under a pile of similarly forgotten bits of plastic in a corner of the house.

Of course, this is the best-case scenario. In the other case – which happens far more frequently than we’d like – the child opens the wrapping and glances at the toy with indifference before tossing it away to snatch up some glossier, shinier thing.

As plastic piles up by the tonne in landfill, it can be hard to justify buying even more disposable gifts, yet impossible to resist the social and emotional imperative to do so.

But there’s one birthday present I was given as a child that I still use to this day, and that’s my Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. This book has been my companion in six different houses and has travelled with me around much of the country. It started me on my quest to learn about the creatures who shared my backyard and from then on, birds were no longer merely ‘birds’. They were rosellas, lorikeets, wrens and honeyeaters. Superb Fairy-wrens, Crimson Rosellas and New Holland Honeyeaters replaced ‘birds’ in my mind. In other words, the world became more complex and interesting to me.

feeding rainbow lorikeets by hand as a teenager. My sister and I once emptied a two litre tub of bird seed in two days - oops!
Feeding Rainbow Lorikeets as a teenager on our annual family trip to Mallacoota. Feeding is not generally recommended these days – partly because bossy birds like these lorikeets thrive by chasing others away. Image: provided.

So, why buy a field guide for a child in your life?

1. They start to pay attention…

In an urban landscape it’s so easy to stop seeing nature. There are so many colourful, moving things around us competing for our attention we have to work to look for things that aren’t obvious. But how can you feel that thrill of joy at watching a pair of swallows chase each other in swooping dives if you haven’t first learned to notice it? It pays to pay attention. A field guide can help you to notice and understand your surroundings, and this in turn leads to gratitude and appreciation.

2. It will last forever…

I was maybe ten years old when I received my field guide and to this day I get it off the shelf regularly when I see a species I’m yet to identify. And field guides are not just for birds. Whether the child in question prefers flitting fairy-wrens, slithering serpents or investigative insects, by guiding them to learn about their natural environment you might spark in them a lifelong hobby or passion. Or they might just like to learn the name of the tree they’re climbing. (Kids still do that, right?)

3. It can be a bonding ritual…

My field guide became a staple of my family’s annual holiday in Mallacoota. We stayed in mudbrick flats surrounded by forest and were visited every day by an assortment of parrots, finches and wrens. While we sat at the kitchen table doing crosswords, my mum and I would point at any unfamiliar bird and lunge for the guide to look it up before the suspect flew off. This place was, of course, magical already, but the bonus of being able to name all these birds and celebrate the discovery of a new one added to the wonder.

4. A name has power…

In Ursula Le Guin’s famous Earthsea fantasy series, wizards gain magical powers over things by learning their ‘true names’. Learning the name of a Red-browed Finch might not give you any power over the animal itself, but a name makes a thing more than a thing. Putting a name to something gives it a place in your knowledge-bank, in your memory, in your consciousness. The first thing we do when meeting someone new is learn their name, and we should extend the same courtesy to the other living things sharing our planet.

A slip of paper in my field guide from when I was maybe 11, trying to identify a 'mystery bird'. A tiny part of me always believed I'd found the elusive Night Parrot, despite the habitat and distribution being completely wrong.
I still have this scrap of paper from when I was maybe 11, trying to identify a ‘mystery bird’. A tiny part of me always believed I’d found the elusive Night Parrot, despite the area and habitat being completely unsuitable for this species.

Of course, while a field guide is great for knowing the common and scientific names of animals and plants, it’s worth remembering that most of these species had names long before Europeans colonised Australia. Learning the Indigenous names of species can be a complex endeavour. Species are grouped differently within Indigenous knowledge systems compared with Western taxonomy – usually according to what they are used for, or their relationship to something else, rather than anatomical structure. With Indigenous naming, more than one name is often given to the same species, and these names are different in each language. The Atlas of Living Australia is working on a project to try to incorporate Indigenous naming into its repository – an important project that aims to help facilitate knowledge sharing and enhance current scientific practice by integrating traditional knowledge. Melbourne University’s Research Unit for Indigenous Language is a great place to start learning some Indigenous species names.

5. They can pass on the knowledge…

I once observed a father and small child at the wombat enclosure of the Melbourne Zoo. ‘What’s that, Daddy?’ the child asked of the round, brown, burrow-dwelling creature before him. The father replied: ‘It’s either a wombat or a koala.’

When my workplace started a walking club, I showed my colleagues how to tell a coot from a duck from a moorhen during a walk through Melbourne’s Albert Park. ‘How do you know all this stuff?’ they asked. It struck me that so many people go through adulthood educating themselves across a broad range of topics, while never learning much about the natural world around them. It’s my hope that, next time those friends are walking in the park with friends or family, they’ll be able to pass on that knowledge.

And hopefully, at the zoo enclosure with their own children, they’ll know which one is the wombat.

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