Discovering Birds at Age 11

A Trip to Madera Canyon Ignites Interest

Forced into distance learning due to COVID-19, Athina Toeniskoetter’s family chose to spend the winter in Arizona near her grandparents.

When a bird enthusiast and family friend came to visit, Athina reluctantly agreed to tag along on a day trip to Madera Canyon. The canyon’s visitor center had dozens of bird feeders that attracted large numbers and species of birds—from tiny hummingbirds to large turkeys.

Athina eagerly checked off each species of bird she saw on the provided checklist, then persuaded her party to continue into the park to find more bird species to add to her growing list. She was hooked. 

Athina Toeniskoetter demonstrates her coding system in a bird field guide
Athina Toeniskoetter demonstrates her coding system in her Peterson’s field guide.

A Bird-themed Birthday Gift

Upon her return to her home in Edina, Minnesota, Athina urged her mother to put up bird feeders so she could attract birds to her yard. Her mother surprised her with a trip to the Bloomington All Seasons Wild Bird Store for her 11th birthday to select some feeders and seed. As an additional gift, Athina received a copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. 

Athina's field guide showing how she marks down bird sightings with date and location.
Athina’s field guide showing how she marks down bird sightings with date and location.

Feeding, Watching, and Keeping Track of Birds

Athina’s passion for birds has grown exponentially in the following months—as have the number of feeders in her yard (she currently has 17). Her Peterson Guide is bountifully marked with color-coded flags denoting birds she has seen and birds she would like to see. She marks her sightings with the date and location in the back of the book. She goes for bird walks with friends and family, photographing her sightings and returning home to confirm the identifications. 

Athina has become proficient at feeding and attracting backyard birds. In her first months of birding, she’s already attracted Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Baltimore Orioles, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, House Sparrows (including one she calls Germy), a breeding pair of Northern Cardinals (she named these Carl and Cardi), Mallard Ducks and more. 

I recently interviewed Athina at her home about her new hobby and any advice she would have about getting kids interested in birds. She shared some great tips—in between calling out names of birds flying over that she’s learned to identify by sound. 

Athina’s Photo Gallery

Below are some of the photos Athina has taken pictures of birds in and around her house and on birding expeditions.


Athina’s Birding Tips

Why care about birds? 

They’re fun to look for—they’re really beautiful, especially their colors. Plus, they’re interesting—how they get food and water, how they make their nests, and how they’re free to travel and migrate to different parts of the world. Bird watching keeps me busy during “corona”. I’m not bored—I’m outside and have something to do. 

How do you know where to look for birds? 

I use the Smart Bird ID app. You can search for the type of bird you want to see, then travel there—the birds will probably still be nearby, especially if they’re nesting. Or you can search for birds in your location so you know what to look for.

How do you identify birds? 

I use the Merlin Bird ID app. It asks you to select your location, the size of the bird, its colors, and what it was doing when you saw it, then it gives suggestions. You can also use it to identify a bird from a photo you took. I also like to use the “explore birds” function to see pictures and hear sounds of birds—the sound of a Blue-winged Teal sounds like an evil laugh!

What feeder do you recommend? 

I have a window feeder in my room—I can watch it in my mirror while I’m doing home school. It attracts a lot of different birds. 

Athina's Mix
Athina’s Mix

You make your own seed mix. What’s in Athina’s Mix? 

Mealworms, sunflower seed, Songbird Delight, and peanuts. I put it in a tray feeder and get a whole variety of birds with one feeder. Some of it gets on the ground, which attracts more birds that like to eat from the ground: Blue Jays, Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and more.

What should kids know about birding? 

People get the wrong idea about bird watching. They think it’s just for older people and just sitting around and waiting. It’s not. It’s like a scavenger hunt. You walk, you take pictures of what you see, then you can go home and ID them later. And it’s something you can do with anyone of any age—so there are lots of people who can join you. 

Birding with mom
Athina birding with her mom, Katrina