Animals ‘talk.’ Here’s how to get kids to listen.

How to teach your children to observe animal behavior—and learn what the critters are trying to say

Thanks to all the talking animals movies young children have likely seen, they might have the impression that animals communicate like humans do. In real life, of course, that’s not true.

But that doesn’t mean kids can’t understand what critters are saying. Teaching kids how to watch and interpret animal behavior helps them gain a number of skills, from observation to patience to critical thinking. It can also introduce them to the scientific method as they notice when animals’ behaviors change, then hypothesize why.

And getting kids to see animals as more than talking cartoon characters can inspire empathy and curiosity, key ingredients to empowering them to protect the Earth. Here are some common animals that kids might observe in the wild—and how to translate what the critters are saying.

Getting started

Animal sightings are often just brief flashes of nature. But experts say that if children can sit quietly and far enough away so that their movements don’t change the animal’s behavior, they’ll will have a better chance of catching a longer glimpse.

“If you can, be pretty regular in your observations,” says John Marzluff, professor of forest resources at the University of Washington. “So maybe you always try to go out about the same time. That will help you understand what you’re seeing.”

Encourage young observers to avoid making noises or throwing stuff to make the animal turn their way. Help fidgeters stay still with binoculars or perhaps a nature journal or sketch pad. And if kids do come across a nearby animal, make sure they don’t approach it—that can be dangerous for both the animal and the child.

Once kids spot an animal to observe, they can start watching its behavior and thinking about what it means. Here are a few translations to get them started.

 The animal: Squirrels

How kids can watch them: John Lad Koprowski, dean of the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, says that where there’s food—whether it’s acorns under a tree or vegetables in a garden—there’s usually squirrels. Kids should also look for their nests. “Look in the canopy of trees for balls of leaves and twigs about the size of a basketball,” he says.

 Translating squirrel-speak:

“I’m nervous.” Squirrels will flick their tails more rapidly if they’re nervous or upset.

“I think something’s out there.” Squirrels stand up high on their hind legs to survey their surroundings for predators like coyotes or foxes.

“I’m here, so pay attention.” Squirrels wipe their cheeks on tree branches and rocks to spread their scent. That alerts other squirrels to their presence, which can be helpful in finding a mate or warning that food in the area is spoken for.

The animal: Butterflies

How kids can watch them: “Butterflies have a sweet tooth, so you’re likely to find them where you’ll find sweet treats,” says Shiran Hershcovich, lepidopterist manager at the Butterfly Pavilion in Colorado. Look for brightly colored flowers, which produce a lot of nectar that the insects feast on, or large groups of flowers. “They depend on the environment to warm up and power their flight,” Hershcovich adds, so warm sunny days from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. is a perfect butterfly-watching time.

 Translating butterfly-speak:

“I need a break.” Butterflies will perch, or grab onto a branch with their wings closed, to camouflage. It’s a way to hide from predators, and it means they’re resting or just hanging out.

“I’m hungry.” If a butterfly lands on a flower, have kids look for its long proboscis (sort of like a tongue) sticking into the flower to suck up nectar. Another hunger alert? A group of butterflies sitting on damp ground or wet patches. Called “puddling,” the butterflies are soaking up the salts they need to survive.

“I’m cold, but I need to get out of here.” Butterflies require a certain temperature to be able to fly. So to absorb as much heat as they can, they’ll perch with their wings completely open, often early in the morning.

The animal: Raccoons

How kids can watch them: Raccoons are most active in the spring, summer, and fall; in spring, kids might be able to see baby raccoons, called kits. “They stick close together, usually just before or a little after dark,” says Suzanne MacDonald, who researches the psychology of raccoons at York University. Raccoons do carry parasites (and—occasionally—rabies), so make sure kids keep their distance, especially if a mama is with her babies.

Translating raccoon-speak:

“I have somewhere to be, so don’t get in my way.” Raccoons scurry in a very distinctive way: noses out and rear ends scrunched up so they look larger. It means they’re traveling to look for food while trying to appear intimidating to predators like cougars and coyotes.

“Let’s play!” Young raccoons wrestling might seem like they’re fighting, but they’re likely just having fun. In fact, raccoons rarely fight, and more often defend their food and family with growls and snaps.

“You seem OK to me.” Raccoons use their teeth and hands to comb through their fur and keep it clean. When they groom each other, it means the raccoons share a strong bond—usually that they’re in the same family.

“Hm, this seems interesting.” Raccoons are most active at night, so their supersensitive skin helps them “see” what they’re holding. When they hold objects, they’re likely trying to figure out what that object is—and if it would taste good. (In fact, MacDonald says a large part of the raccoon brain is dedicated to creating images from what they touch.) MacDonald adds that scientists think that’s why raccoons put their food in water—the water softens the skin on their hands and makes them even more sensitive.

The animal: Crows

How kids can watch them: Crows breed in spring and summer, so that’s a great time for kids to observe nesting. Once eggs hatch, Marzluff says children can watch crow parents tend to their young for months.

 Translating crow-speak:

“You’ll never find this.” Crows are hoarders that store food, just as squirrels do. Watch the ubiquitous birds as they walk around with food—like seeds, nuts, or berries—in their beaks. They'll slink around, drive their beaks into the ground, and deposit the food. Sometimes they’ll even grab a clump of grass or a leaf to hide the hole.

“Time to feed the babies.” A crow dipping food in water, especially in spring, probably means the bird is moistening the meal for their chicks.

“Danger, danger!” A bunch of crows flying around while making a scolding vocalization are likely “mobbing” a predator like a hawk or owl. They’re trying to alert other crows of the threat and scare away the intruder.

 “Don’t mess with me.” A crow that aggressively walks up to or flies at another one while vocalizing is displaying dominance over the other crow. (The alpha might even push the other bird away.)

“You’re the boss.” A crow that cowers in front of another crow or steps out of its way is showing that it’s not a threat to the dominant bird. Kids might even see groups of crows getting out of the way of the dominant bird, trying to avoid a fight.

The animal: Deer

How kids can watch them: Eric Michel, an ungulate research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says deer are most active at dusk and dawn in spots with plenty of food, whether it’s a farm field, a patch of short leafy trees, or bushes. Deer also like to stay hidden, so look for them in forested areas.

 Translating deer-speak: 

“Look out, everyone.” Deer lift up their tails when they think danger is nearby, which tells others in the herd to stay alert. Another caution signal to listen for: snorting.

“Don’t even try to sneak up on me.” Deer can move their ears independently of each other, helping them pinpoint sounds from all direction. They often do this while feeding to stay extra safe.

“You can’t fool me—I know you’re there.” Deer sometimes bob their heads to fake out something that might be watching them. If they detect movement while they’re eating, they’ll stare at the movement, then lower their head as if they're going to go back to eating. But then they'll quickly bring up their head to see if anything has moved. If it has, it could be a threat, and the deer can get away.

“Call me.” During breeding season in the spring, bucks will rub their antlers on trees to deposit scent from the glands on their foreheads. They'll also make what researchers call a scrape: They paw the ground and urinate into the dirt to deposit scent. These behaviors allow the bucks and does to communicate with each other so they know who’s around and ready to mate.

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