Monthly Archives: March 2022

Children’s Art Project Based on John Audubon’s Birds of America

Recently my 3rd grade art class studied owls for an art project. They learned that big owl eyes see really well at night, that owl feathers help them fly silently, and that extra-long owl necks help them rotate their heads as much as 270 degrees. We saw that an owl’s head is much rounder than many birds.

They learned these things because we looked carefully to first draw and then make an owl collage. The more they looked and learned, the more they saw God’s wonderful design and diversity! You and your children will love making owl collages, too.

Here’s what you’ll find in this post:

  • Supply list
  • Vocabulary
  • Directions
  • Helpful hints
  • 4 Variations and/or adaptations for different ages
  • 3 Art elements and design principles children will learn
  • 4 Ways this activity aids children’s mental, physical, and social development
  • Clean-up tips
  • An update about the Cliff Swallows of San Juan Capistrano
  • Cute Molly Photo

Let’s get started!


  • Construction paper in blacks, tans, browns, yellows, and whites
  • Black, white, and brown tempera paint (no brown paint? Just mix blue, yellow, and red as I did to make brown. More blue makes a darker brown)
  • Brushes, forks
  • Yellow or white colored pencil
  • Crayons
  • White glue
  • Pencils, scissors


Texture, how an object feels to the touch, such as its roughness, smoothness, fuzziness, etc.  In painting we often try to give an impression of texture with thick paint or with different kinds of marks.



  1. On a light-colored paper, blend whites and blacks to cover the paper. Try to get a variety of dark and light grays. For texture, don’t blend these too much on the paper. You may also dip a brush or fork in the pure black or white and add a variety of marks for more texture.
  2. Do the same with brown and white paint on another paper.
  3. Allow these to dry


  1. For the tree trunk, cut a piece of brown paper that will stretch from top to bottom of the black paper and add texture to it with crayons. When done coloring, roll the paper as if making a tube and gently crush it together all along its length.
  2. Open up the tube and glue to the side of the black paper as the tree trunk.
  3. For a branch, color and cut a thin strip of brown paper. See below for when to add the branch.


  1. On a black paper, use the yellow colored pencil to sketch an owl sitting on the branch of a tree. Notice the owl’s head is quite round, while a fat leaf shape can be used for the body.
  2. Draw and cut out eyes, beak, and talons.
  3. Tear the brown and gray papers into feathers. They’ll look more natural if torn.
  4. Starting at the bottom of the owl and working up, glue the feathers to cover the owls’ body and head, overlapping these and only gluing the top portion of each feather so they look 3-D.
  5. When you get to where you want a branch, glue it down and glue more feathers and the talons on top of it.
  6. After you have the head feathered, (I didn’t add those feathers, but put the disks where they’d do over the head feathers), you may want to cut circles from one of the painted papers and fringe these around the edges. These facial disks of feathers surround the eyes of many owls and help reflect light to the eyes. Glue the eyes in the center of the facial disks and glue these to the head along with the beak.


  1. Cut out a moon from a paper towel and glue in place. Use quite a bit of glue and as it dries, it’ll begin to show the black paper through it, looking quite moon-like. (credit for this idea goes to a third grader!)

Display these owl collages where everyone can enjoy the uniqueness of each creation!

Helpful Hints:

This project needs white glue, and many children have a hard time not getting great globs of it everywhere. To prevent this, I squeeze a puddle of glue onto a plastic or aluminum pie plate, and children use their fingers or a Q-tip to spread the glue where needed. It also helps them be able to just dip one end of each feather in the glue.

4 Variations and/or adaptations for different ages:

  1. I did this project with a large group of 3rd graders, with demonstrations for each step, and they did really well. Younger children will need you to break it down into small steps, but in small groups may still do this project successfully. (remember that you want them to enjoy the process, not come up with an adult style artwork). Let the personality of each owl shine through!
  2. This project can be done without paint. Have children use crayons to add texture to gray and tan papers and use these for the feathers.
  3. Make a larger tree trunk and cut a hole in it for the owl to be in.
  4. Older children can research owls and use colors that make their owl look more like a particular kind.

3 Art elements and design principles children will learn

  1. This project helps children see and draw shapes.
  2. It helps children learn to mix lighter and darker colors and blend these on paper.
  3. It also teaches them a few ways we make textures in paintings.

4 Ways this activity aids children’s mental, physical, and social development

  1. Using crayons, paint brushes, and other art tools helps children develop fine motor skills.
  2. Looking at an object or creature before and during drawing helps children develop better observation skills.
  3. Discussing their art as they work builds vocabulary and social skills.
  4. Making art enhances creativity and refreshes minds and eyes tired from screens.

Clean up Hints:

  • Be sure to put a plastic table cloth or large paper under your work
  • Have paper towels handy
  • Wax paper under papers as you add glue keeps things from sticking in the wrong places.
  • Keep a wastebasket handy for trash
  • After washing and rinsing brushes, reshape bristles if needed, and lay them flat on paper towels to dry. Store with bristles up in a jar.

Update on the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano, CA, author photo

With the help of Dr. Brown, the mission began playing recorded swallow songs about the time the swallows return each March. They constructed a wall just for the swallows to build their nests on, along with a nearby pool so the birds could make mud pellets for their nests.

These efforts have helped bring back a few nesting pairs in the last few years, but the bigger problem is the loss of habitat around the mission. The growth in people population and in tree planting has cut way down on the open fields swallows need to find food, so the project is an ongoing challenge.

Cute Molly Photo

Along with many of us, Molly celebrated St. Patrick’s Day this week. She hopes you like her green bandana! She thought the green frog added a nice touch, too.

She wants you to know that next week our newsletter will have lots of fun ideas, projects, freebees, book reviews, and links to continue learning, It includes a review of the wonderful book about owls that fascinated my 3rd graders. It’s full of facts and photos!

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit.

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly and I hope to see you back here soon for a new Kathy the Picture Lady art series.





Devotion based on John J. Audubon’s Paintings from Birds of America

John J. Audubon studied and became an expert to paint birds for his book, Birds of America. We can study them, too, but often we’re in a hurry and don’t notice the birds flying around our own yards gobbling up insects.

In my previous post I said the encounter with those cliff swallows building nests on a West Texas hotel began my fascination with them. I started researching, and learned it was also cliff swallows that returned every year to the old mission of San Juan Capistrano in California.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, CA, author photo

Only they weren’t returning anymore, so the mission consulted a cliff swallow expert for help. For many years Dr. Charles R. Brown of the University of Tulsa has been studying cliff swallows along the Platte River in Nebraska, where thousands return each year to build or rebuild nests.

One spring I traveled to Nebraska and spent a day studying cliff swallow colonies with Dr. Brown and his assistant. The swallows still build nests on the cliffs that in places overlook the river (part of the Oregon Trail included crossing the Platte River, and some pioneers mentioned the swallows and their nests in diaries and letters).

But today many swallows take advantage of man made structures, so we had to tramp across fields to enter huge culverts while trains rumbled overhead and put on tall wading boots to get to nests under bridges.

I had learned a lot from my research, but it was exciting and fun to see them up close with someone who’s been studying them for years. When we walked under a bridge hundreds of swallows rushed out the other side, but soon they returned, swooping by us, and slipped back into their nests. They’d immediately turn around and poke their heads back out, the white spot on their foreheads shining in the dim light and letting everyone know they’re home.

I got to poke a long handled dental mirror into nests, while shining a flashlight just so, to see the eggs inside (not as easy as it sounds!). And we spent several hours baking in the sun while quietly observing the behavior of the swallows as they came and went from their nests.

Here’s some of what I learned that day about how God feeds just one of His many types of birds!

  • Cliff swallows winter in South America, so they fly thousands of miles to return each spring to the western prairies of the United States and Canada for breeding.
  • This kind of swallow lives in colonies that range in size from a few dozen nests to thousands honeycombing a cliff or under a bridge.
  • Cliff swallows like to return to the same places each year, but will periodically abandon some sites when these become too infested with parasites.
  • They eat insects, scooping them from the sky as they fly.
  • Cliff swallows need open fields and farmland where warm updrafts stir up insects for them to catch.
  • Snakes sometimes invade nest sites to feast on eggs and baby birds.
  • Cliff swallows will sometimes sneak into others’ nests to steal nesting material or even lay eggs.

One of the most fascinating ways God feeds cliff swallows is that the colony serves as a way for swallows to find those updrafts of insects. Dr. Brown has discovered that when a swallow returns with a mouthful of insects for its babies, other swallows will follow it when it leaves again so they can join the feast. The colony works a little like a computer clearing house for information.

And one thing Dr. Brown said that day has stayed with me. He believes that though many people go long distances to study various creatures, many of us can find and study amazing creatures close to home, even in our own back yards!

Birds are everywhere, and this time of year they are returning to build nests and raise families. Just today I saw a house finch gathering nesting materials in my back yard.

Take time to see the work of the first and best Artist! How many different types of birds share your backyard? Notice the patterns on their wings. Has God made their beak for seeds or worms?

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” Psalm 111:2

If you can, get outside with your children. Take along a field guide and learn more about the birds in your neighborhood.

When we look carefully to “study” how God has designed each bird, we see that He gave each bird just the right beak, feet, body, tail, and wings to be able to gather its food in the environment He designed it for.

All birds have beaks and wings, but… God gave hummingbirds wings that beat super fast so they can hover and stick their long beaks deep into flowers to sip nectar. And He gave cliff swallows just the right beak and streamlined shape to be able to gather mud pellets for a nest and swoop through the sky to grab tasty insects.

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matt. 6:26

Jesus used God’s care of the birds to teach us that our heavenly Father knows our needs and provides for us just as He does the birds.

Jesus didn’t mean we shouldn’t pray about our needs. He tells us to do just that in the Lord’s Prayer, (Matthew 6:9-13). But He also wants us to realize we don’t have to keep worrying; we can pray and leave our worries about our daily needs with our heavenly Father. Jesus wants us to soar on to scoop up more important things—heavenly treasures from our Bibles that teach us how to love God and our neighbors.

Prayer: Thank you, Heavenly Father, for providing for our daily needs. When we look at the birds of the air, help us learn from them to trust You with every part of our lives! In Jesus’ name, amen.

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up above for my newsletter and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly and I hope you enjoyed learning more about how God feeds the cliff swallows, and you’ll get out and enjoy learning about the birds in your own backyard! Come back next week for a fun art project about birds and to learn if swallows have returned to San Juan Capistrano.

John James Audubon, Painter of American Birds

The spring shower ended soon after we arrived at our hotel in West Texas, so we went out for a walk. Hundreds of small birds fluttering at the edges of muddy puddles drew our attention. At first we thought they were bathing, but when we looked at the hotel, we saw mud nests in various stages of construction honeycombing its walls. Nests the birds were building one mud pellet at a time.

This first encounter with cliff swallows began my fascination with them. John J. Audubon’s first encounter with cliff swallows also fascinated him. Here are a couple excerpts from his account of it in The Birds of America:

“In the spring of 1815, I for the first time saw a few individuals of this species at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio . . . . forming their nests and rearing their young. Unfortunately . . . the specimens were lost, and I despaired for years of meeting with others.”

“In the year 1819, my hopes were revived by Mr. ROBERT BEST, curator of the Western Museum at Cincinnati, who informed me that a strange species of bird had made its appearance in the neighbourhood, building nests in clusters, affixed to the walls. . . . I immediately crossed the Ohio to Newport, in Kentucky, where he had seen many nests the preceding season; and no sooner were we landed than the chirruping of my long-lost little strangers saluted my ear. Numbers of them were busily engaged in repairing the damage done to their nests by the storms of the preceding winter. ”

Audubon goes on to describe their building activities:

“About day-break they flew down to the shore of the river, one hundred yards distant, for the muddy sand, of which the nests were constructed, and worked with great assiduity until near the middle of the day, as if aware that the heat of the sun was necessary to dry and harden their moist tenements.”

You can find a fuller account of his experiences studying cliff swallows and other birds on the Audubon website,

Audubon gave as much attention to every bird he studied. It became his life’s work to find, paint, and describe the habits of as many American birds as he could.

Read on to:

  • Find helpful vocabulary
  • Learn more about John James Audubon and his life work
  • See activities to help you and your children explore and enjoy Audubon’s paintings
  • A cute photo of Molly, the Artsy Corgi


These words, which will be in bold green the first time they come up, will help you and your children talk more easily about different parts of a painting.

  • Ornithology (adj. ornithological), the scientific study of birds
  • Engraving (v. engraved), a print made from a metal plate in which the lines of the image have been cut

The Artist

John J. Audubon was a naturalist and artist who came from France in 1803 at the age of 18 to farm in the United States. He neglected the farming to explore the countryside and study and sketch animals, especially birds. He spent hours observing their habits. One night he even squeezed inside a huge hollow tree so he could observe and count the thousands of swifts that roosted inside it.

Before modern-day banding was thought of, Audubon tied threads around bird’s legs and discovered that many birds came back to the same nesting spots each year. Audubon gave up farming and moved to Kentucky to open a store on the frontier. For a while his business was successful, but it failed in 1819, and after that he began taking long treks through the forests to study, sketch, and gather specimens.

European ornithological books didn’t contain many American bird species, so Audubon decided to publish his paintings and descriptions. No one in this country was willing to publish such an expensive work (Audubon wanted his birds to be as close to life-size as possible, and each of his watercolor paintings had to be engraved for printing and then hand-painted).

In 1826 Audubon sailed to England. He hired a printer and financed the project by selling subscriptions to the book, which came out 5 prints at a time. Wealthy patrons, including the queen of England and the king of France, bought subscriptions. At that time, the whole book of 435 engravings cost about $1,000. In 2000, with only about 100 of the original 176 complete books left, mostly in museums or libraries, one sold at auction for $8.8 million.

The Paintings

Birds in most paintings before Audubon’s time were drawn from stuffed specimens, and they looked it. Audubon’s early drawings looked similar, but as he studied the birds and practiced drawing and painting, he began to paint birds in much more natural poses. He also added plants from the bird’s habitat, and accurate portrayals of their nests as with the cliff swallows.

Cliff Swallows by Julius Bien after John J. Audubon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

Though Audubon’s paintings were also well-designed artistically, he never lost sight of the purpose of showing the birds accurately. Take these barn swallows. As required for a field guide, we can see their beaks, their feet, and their markings from every angle, but the dramatic design of the raised wing gives movement to the painting. And the two strongly forked tails mirror each other and contrast with the background.

Barn Swallows by Julius Bien after John J. Audubon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

Many of Audubon’s paintings have lots of drama. In this painting of Virginia partridges, a red-tailed hawk attacks the nesting birds. The partridges scatter in every direction, while the hawk’s wings form a dramatic pattern against the sky.

Virginian Partridge, plate 76 by John J. Audubon, public domain

Audubon wanted even the largest birds to be shown almost life-size, and fitting them on a page often produced some very modern-looking graphic designs. Look at the flamingo with its long neck echoing the bends of its legs to reach down to the water. It’s a design that catches our attention!

American Flamingo by John J. Audubon, Brooklyn Museum, public domain

Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore these Beautiful Paintings

  • Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the paintings. Some birds are nesting, others are feeding or fleeing. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary.
  • These paintings by Audubon provide many opportunities to compare and contrast bird nests, beaks, feet and legs, and color combinations and patterns, and see how God fit each bird exactly right for its environment so it could find food, have materials for nesting and avoid predators. For example, the explosion of partridges from the nest could confuse the hawk, allowing many to get away.
  • Ask them which painting is their favorite and why.
  • Talk with them about the amount time Audubon must have taken to observe and create these accurate and colorful paintings. Do they think they’d have the patience for that kind of work?

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter above and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly and I hope you enjoyed John James Audubon’s paintings. We hope you’ll come back for a devotion based on these next week! To be sure not to miss a post you can sign up for my blog above.

On the lookout for birds near the marsh last summer.