- develop bird-observation skills;
- recognize basic bird behaviours and characteristics; and
- learn to identify some backyard birds.
Students practise observational skills by looking for basic features of bird species.
List of bird traits, including diagrams of beaks, feet, wings, and tails; image of any local bird; bird field guide such as Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds; pens or pencils; clipboard; a tape recorder or CD player and a tape or CD of local bird calls (optional); binoculars (optional)
Learning to identify different traits of birds helps to further our understanding of them, and enriches our appreciation of nature and the interconnectedness of all living things. Students will be taught the importance of keen observation in identifying species through traits such as size, flight pattern, the shape of beaks and tails, markings, and behaviour. You can simplify or expand this exercise depending on the age of your students.
- Size. Is the bird small, medium, large, or enormous? Compare it to familiar birds, such as the robin. Is it larger or smaller?
- Shape. Is it plump or slender? This feature can help to narrow the list of possible species.
- The bird’s proportions. Is the tail of the bird short or half the length of its body? Is its head large or small in proportion to its body?
- The beak. Is it stumpy, short, slender, hooked, flat, or chisel-like?
- What colour is it?
- What do its feet look like in shape and colour?
- Are its wings rounded or pointed while in flight?
- What is the bird doing? Is it hopping, walking, or climbing a tree trunk? Is it catching insects in the air, picking them off foliage, or digging for them in the earth?
- Does it have noticeable quirks, such as tail-wagging or wingflicking?
- How does it fly? Does it swoop, fly straight, glide, flap (quickly or slowly), or do a combination of those patterns?
- What habitat was the bird using? Was it in a field, on a lawn, in coniferous or deciduous trees, in a marsh or pond, or in the suburbs, city or country?
- Describe any noises the bird makes, such as songs, chirps, or squawks.
- Have students design a bird identification chart or checklist (see "Where was it" and "The Bird Project").
- Have students practise observing and identifying some common backyard birds. For instance, hold up an image of a bird, such as a blue jay, and say that you spotted it in your backyard. Tell them it’s about the same size as a robin and has a loud call that sounds a bit like "Cheer! Cheer!" (If you have a tape or CD of birdsongs, play the bird’s song.) Have students write down details like the jay’s general shape, the shape of its beak and its colour patterns. Ask them if it has any other characteristics (such as its crested head) that could be clues. Can they match it to a "Roadside Silhouette" in Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds? Let students ask questions of you, such as "What was it eating?" After describing and writing down several of the blue jay’s traits, help students find it in the field guide. Repeat this activity with several species.
- Now you are ready for an excursion into the field to observe and identify birds. This activity can be done on your school grounds, in a nearby field, by a stand of trees, or at a birdfeeder. Binoculars can be handy but are not necessary.
- Bird-watching with a group of students can be a challenge! Stress the importance of silence and moving slowly so birds won’t be scared off. Sit as a group to watch and listen. When a bird is spotted, have students quietly discuss all the features they notice while you jot them down. Then have them check a field guide.
- Go bird-watching and look for other signs of birds, such as nests, feathers, sapsucker or woodpecker holes in trees, and footprints.
- Discuss how certain characteristics are perfectly adapted to what birds eat or where they live. For example, sparrows have stumpy beaks for cracking seeds and eating insects, while a robin’s slender beak is perfect for digging slugs and worms and insects and berries. A hawk’s strong, hooked claws are designed for catching and holding prey, while a woodpecker’s feet are just the thing for climbing tree trunks.
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