If you watch birds at a feeder, it is easy to incorporate some science into your bird watching. Beyond developing an appreciation of nature and wildlife, kids can investigate animal behavior, adaptations, collect and analyze data, contribute to citizen science and more!
Set up a feeder and begin to observe the birds. Your children and students will benefit by honing their science, math and observation skills. Bird watching can also be a calming activity on those days when things begin to feel chaotic and crazy!
Set Up a Bird Feeding Station
If you don’t already have a bird feeding site established, then you’ll want to set one up. My suggestion is to hang your feeder near a window that you can comfortably sit at for viewing from indoors as well as when you are outside.
There are a variety of things you can feed birds, and the more choices you provide the more likely you are to attract different species. A good all-around bird food is black-oil sunflower seeds. Many birds eat them and with a high-fat content, they provide just what a wintering bird needs.
If you prefer to feed birds over squirrels and chipmunks, there are many choices for “squirrel-proof” feeders. The only one that I’ve found that truly works is this one, which we’ve been using without squirrel trouble for years! Although they are a little more expensive, they are very sturdy and prevent a lot of wasted birdseed due to those clever squirrels who spill it everywhere!
Science Explorations at the Bird Feeder
Once you are set up to feed birds and you begin to have feathered visitors, there are a plethora of ways you can use your bird feeding station for science and math investigations. Here are ten activity ideas:
Research and Identify: What species of bird visit your feeder?
Bird identification is not only fun, but helps to develop strong observation skills. Kids have to pay close attention to colors, shapes, size and behavior. Get a good bird field guide, such as Peterson’s or Stokes and your students can begin to figure out who your bird customers are. They’ll not only have to find the correct bird visually in the guide, but read and interpret a range map and written description as well as estimate measurements.
Adaptations: Types of Feet
Investigate and Observe: How do different feet affect the way the bird eats while at the feeder?
You can observe different bird feet at the bird feeder. Birds have different types of feet depending on species. In general, there are feet good for perching, wading, scratching, grabbing and swimming. Most of your feeder birds will have the perching type feet, which have four toes, three of which point forward, while the last points to the back.
Another type of foot you can observe at the feeder are those seen on woodpeckers. Woodpeckers have two toes that point forward, and two that point back. This type of foot is great for climbing and holding on to the side of a tree, which a woodpecker must do to hunt for bugs.
Adaptations: Types of Beaks
Investigate and Research: What are feeder bird’s natural food sources and how are their different beaks adapted to them?
Much like bird feet, you’ll find a wide variety of beaks belonging to birds, too! Most of the birds coming to eat seeds from a feeder will have beaks specialized for cracking seeds. Depending on how large the seeds are that the birds eat in the wild will determine the size of these seed or nut-cracking beaks.
For example, a chickadee has a small seed-cracking beak, while a grosbeak has a sturdier beak better adapted for cracking larger seeds and nuts. Woodpeckers have beaks that are used for making holes in trees from which they pull insects, etc. They will eat seeds as well, but their beaks are adapted for the work they do on trees instead.
Learn and Identify Bird Songs
Listen and Identify: Can you identify a bird by its song alone?
Learning bird songs is a magical activity. It takes some calm and quiet. Once you encourage a child to really sit and listen, they’ll begin to hear things they didn’t notice before (you probably will, too!).
When I was teaching classroom science, I found my bird songbook, that played recordings of bird calls, to be an indispensable resource. Kids absolutely love listening to bird songs and it is a beautiful thing when they recognize a bird song out in nature for the first time. You can find the updated version of this bird songbook here.
Observe and Collect Data: How do birds behave at the bird feeder?
There is an entire field of scientific research devoted to animal behavior. You can be an animal behaviorist right at home if you watch birds closely. Take a kitchen timer and set it to a manageable time for your child to sit still and observe the bird feeder. (Most likely, older kids can sustain longer observations, but everyone is different!)
Once you’ve taken note of some specific behaviors, i.e. “Goldfinches sit on feeders for extended periods and exclude all the other birds” or “Juncos fly away when a blue jay lands near them” you can begin to collect data on the specific behaviors you’ve noticed. Tally up the number of times the behavior happens within a set period of time (i.e. 5 minutes). Observe during different times of day, does it change the results?
Bird Food Preference
Create an Experiment: What types of bird food do different species prefer?
In addition to simply feeding the birds and observing what happens, design an experiment to see what species prefer what types of food. Start simple by feeding two types of bird food. (Please research to find out what food items are appropriate so that you do not cause harm to your feathered neighbors!) Maybe you’ll put out cracked corn in one feeder and black-oil seed in another. What do the different bird species prefer?
Graph the data collected on bird food preference.
Graphing Bird Species
Observe and Collect Data: Can you show what species visit your feeder in graphical form?
Keep track of the bird species you spot at your feeder each day throughout a set period of time, i.e. a month or two weeks. Graph your data to show which species are the most common visitors.
Contribute to a Citizen Science Project
Identify and Count: Contribute your data to the Great Backyard Bird Count
Four days out of every February, a wonderful citizen science project called the Great Backyard Bird Count occurs. People of all ages from all over the place count birds and contribute their data to the project. It is super easy to get involved. For more information about the Great Backyard Bird Count, or GBBC, and a printable bird counting sheet visit this link.
Getting kids involved in citizen science is a wonderful way to show them that science is real and is accessible to us all! Perhaps you’ll inspire a future STEM career!
Collect and Analyze Data on Bird Activity
Observe, Collect and Analyze Data: When are birds most active at the feeder?
You won’t always see birds at the bird feeder. Sometimes it is quiet and empty, other times it will be a feeding frenzy. You might also notice that certain species of birds visit at different times. Throughout a week, have kids observe the feeder in increments during different times of day. Take note of what types of bird come to the feeder and how many of each type.
Graph the results and then analyze what was found. What are the most common feeding times? Which species are morning feeders? Which are afternoon feeders? etc.
Observe Feeding Techniques and Behavior
Observe: How do different species of bird collect food and eat food?
You might notice that the different species of bird also have their own techniques for eating their food. Some feed on the ground, some visit the feeder. Some are flexible and do both.
Some birds take a seed away and wedge it into some tree bark before cracking it open, others hold it down with their foot and crack the shell.
Observe your birds carefully until you think you understand how each species of bird collects and eats its food.
Hello and thanks for stopping by! My name is Sarah Benton Feitlinger and I am a science educator with over 10 years experience sharing science in nature and environmental centers, museums and schools. I have been studying science and nature in one way or another pretty much my whole life!
I have a passion for making science understandable, and my goal is to make it accessible for everyone. My blog focuses on connecting current events in science to resources and activities for teachers, parents and students.