Thursday, January 30, 2014

Product Revew: Sibley Backyard Birding Flashcards

It all started out as a scheme to get my daughter a bit more into birding. She is a great kid and super smart, and she is interested in birds and nature and outdoor stuff, but she has a stumbling block: her twin brother. He is also a great kid and super smart, but when he is interested in something he gets really interested in it, so much so that I think it turns his sister off of it because she sees it as "his thing" (I can't imagine which parent he inherited this obsessiveness from!). It has been like this for years with dinosaurs and, to a lesser extent, animals in general, so it is only natural that it was like this for birds (they are dinosaurs after all).

So I worried that she might miss out on a hobby or activity that she actually likes and is good at. Just to be clear, my daughter is actually pretty good at identifying birds: she knows many common yard birds, can pick up Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens by ear and can tell Fish Crows and American Crows apart. She actually is a great birder for her age and is a better birder than many adults. Her twin brother, however, must have gone through his Sibley Field Guide many times and does things like identifying Broad-winged Hawks soaring over his school.

The interest was there, but how could I get her something more that would get her on a more solid footing as her brother (so she wouldn't feel like his junior partner if we were looking at birds)? Her little brother!

My daughter loves to teach my youngest son, so I jumped on Amazon and looked for some flashcards that I could use with my youngest, and my daughter could help me out. It wasn't coincidence that it just so happens that the best way to learn something is to teach it, so while my youngest might learn some birds, my daughter would learn even more.

There were a couple of options for flashcards, but I went with Sibley Backyard Birding Flashcards. This seemed an obvious choice, as I love the Sibley Guide and was assured to have good quality images. So let's see what I got!

Box containing the cards
I know this may sound weird, but I loved the thickness and quality of the box containing the cards. Nice and sturdy. This box would not be out of place in a collection of board games.

The cards emerge
Inside the box are the cards, divided into two sections and with a wrapper around them to hold them. The cards themselves are nice quality cards that I have no fear of damaging. Again, this whole packaging and material is reminiscent of a good board or card game (the geeky type that I play). Impressive.

Cards! I didn't sleeve them though
The cards themselves are nice, obviously since they use Sibley's artwork. There are 100 of them, divided into eastern birds, western birds, and continent-wide birds. It is a nice variety, with more (probably too much) information on the back including the range map.

The front of the cards, obviously, don't have the names on them. Every card has two images on it with them often being male and female ("girl at the top, boy at the bottom" as my youngest says), but sometimes they have juvenile and adult, alternative plumages, or geographical variation. Overall, good quality.

I started using these with my youngest son (with some help from my older twins) before Christmas, and he loves it. He often asks for us "to do birds" especially during meals (he needs to eat first, though), and really enjoys it (thankfully, because I wasn't going to force him). We started with a few of them (easy ones, though he took forever to get the cardinal for some reason) and I have slowly added cards.

Every time he also get down "the bird map," which is a laminated poster from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for common feeder birds that we've had forever. After I show him the bird card, he will try to find it on the bird map (or say "that one's not on the bird map"), which is good because it gives him a second image of it, but also lets him do something on the birds even if he doesn't know it yet. The birds on the bird map are labelled, so only kids that can't read yet could use it like that, but it is a nice resource in general to have.

The Bird Map!

I blame Jake and the Never Land Pirates for the whole "map" mania of my son.
Since we do this often at the table (and many times a day, at his request), my daughter gets exposed to it to and often wants me to quiz her as well. Ha! My plan worked! Except it worked even better, since my youngest is now obsessed with birds! My daughter, while not obsessed, is now pretty damn good at the whole birding part. Granted, it would be best to just go outside and walk  around, but damn it has been cold here.

One of the interesting things is the speed at which they kids can pick up on the little subtleties. American Tree Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, House Sparrow? Yeah, they got those down. House Finch versus Purple Finch? Yep, got those too. Downy versus Hairy Woodpecker? Ehhhhh, not quite yet on those though.

Does this translate into actual birding skill? Well my youngest (not even four yet) identified Mourning Doves and Tufted Titmice on the way to the car the other day. So: probably!

So the cards are great! But are there any negatives. Yep!

A couple issues stem from the fact that they included eastern and western birds in the box. I know why they did this (there probably isn't a market for two versions), but that leaves me with about a third of the cards that I probably will never use. A shame.

But the real issue with this is that they labelled the cards as "Eastern North America", "Western North America", or "Across the Continent" with each labels being bordered by a different color. On the front of the card!


That way if you are looking at the birds, you get all kinds of extra information that could help you identify the bird. Having trouble with Song Sparrows versus White-throated Sparrows? You won't need to look at the birds colors or shape, you can just look at the border color.

Hmmm, could there be something else besides the birds' features that could make you tell them apart?
This could have been easily rectified by having the color border vary on the back of the card, so you could easily tell them apart to sort without giving away stuff on the front.

But that leads into another problem in the amount of information on the front of the cards. I disagree with them pointing out the features to look for on there; this isn't a field guide, these are flash cards. I see flash cards as sort of like practice for seeing a bird in the field, not practice for seeing bird in a field guide.

I think, though, that this is because these were just cut and pasted from the field guide. For all the quality put into the materials of the cards, I am struck by the odd decisions and lack of polish on them. Some stem from the "cut and paste from the book" practice, but others make the cards less effective and less practical.

Take Chimney Swifts. Here is the card, but they decided to double up and put Chimney and Vaux's Swifts on the same card. Why?!?!?! What do you expect someone to answer for that card? The whole point of flash cards is to have isolated information on each card, not multiple species. That makes the card useless, but not as bad as putting the name of the bird on the front, right?

I know the bottom one isn't a Chimney Swift, but what is the top one?
Oh, no, they did that too. When you cut and paste an image onto the card and then combine it with another species, you probably should make sure that the image you selected didn't have the name of the other species on it. Even if it was just Vaux's Swift, you just gave away that it was a swift.

This is lazy production.

Some other decisions that I disagree with include having almost all birds perching when some you will almost always see them flying. This is odd because they have the combinatorial swift card with the bird in flight, but not the swallows or raptors.

For the book Hawks in Flight 2: Hawks not in Flight
Swallows and hawks and vultures are mostly seen flying, but these won't help with that. Damn, some more cards that are mostly useless.

Other things are odd, like their choice of birds. Sure there are the ones you expect, but there is no Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Field Sparrow, or any kinglets (which I would have included). They have the Black-capped Chickadee, but no Carolina Chickadee, which is a pair of cards that would have been extremely helpful to have. They have a good variety of sparrow, but only a few warblers.

See, warblers aren't that hard!
I understand the warblers, though, because they would have taken up a huge chunk of the deck. But that is one of the problems: this set of cards tries to be too much for too many people and it suffers because of that. Have an eastern set with mostly common yard and feeder birds? Perfect! Another booster set with all the warblers? Wonderful. Gulls? Great! Of course to make 10 different sets is probably cost prohibitive, but just an eastern one would be better than what we have here, where at least 1/3 of the cards aren't useful at all to me.

Besides that, it is the little sloppy things that make this product less than it could be. The colored borders on the front, the extra information around the birds, the doubling up on a couple cards, the spoiler information on a couple cards, the erratic decision on flight pictures versus perching pictures, the small little errors that slip though despite being obvious...

Yeah, it is just a capitalization thing, but these things shouldn't happen on a professional product

It is those issues that really annoy me, especially on a product like this. These cards should be great, and in many ways they are, but in many other ways they appear amateurish in their production and editing.

These, however, are probably the best cards on the market, and probably will be for a long time (there probably isn't much of a market for bird flash cards). And for a list price of $14.99, and an Amazon price of $13.49, you really can't complain that much. I just figure there are like 60 cards that I can use from the pack, and 14 bucks is a good deal for that. If the were 25 bucks I would probably pass.

All negatives aside, my children and I have gotten great use of these cards and my kids, especially my youngest, have picked up a whole lot of good birding skills from going through them. On a warm day, take your kids outside and actually see the birds. Do that every time. On a winter day where the cold just won't end? Break these cards out.

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