The Birds and the Beaks

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SWBAT discover the form-function connection between bird beaks and their food, and identify other adaptations birds have to survive in specific habitats.

Big Idea

Each organism is adapted to live in its habitat and to obtain the things it needs in order to survive. The beaks, feet, and legs of most birds are adapted to eat specific things in their environment.

Teacher Set-up

15 minutes

Today's lesson is a station-based activity, with students rotating through seven different stations to experience feeding as a bird. Students are broken into groups of 5-6 to allow for each group to be engaged throughout the lesson, and will prevent anyone from having to wait for materials in order to participate. 

Prior to implementing this lesson, you will need to prepare six “food” stations, as directed below:

  • Station 1: Several styrofoam peanuts floating in a bowl of water and one lump of clay, shaped like a fish, to sink to the bottom.
  • Station 2: Pipe cleaner, cut into 1" pieces, buried in a bowl of sand or soil.
  • Station 3: Sunflower seeds in a bowl.
  • Station 4: Rice grains pressed into a piece of clay.
  • Station 5: Cotton balls
  • Station 6: Grass clippings or paper shredded in a bowl of water.
  • Station 7: Several maraschino cherries on a skewer, sitting in a shallow dish of water and/or their own juices (to keep them moist).

Additionally, you will also need to prepare one set of “beaks” for each group of students, with each set containing:

  • One pair of chopsticks
  • One small and one large clothespin
  • One slotted spoon or pasta server
  • One pair of tweezers
  • One set of tongs
  • Thin straws or coffee stirrers (1 per student)
  • One pair of pliers


5 minutes

I start the lesson by showing the students a picture of a pelican's bill and asking what this picture is. Students volunteer many guesses, most of which will probably be close, but probably vague or incorrect. I then display a picture of the bill again, but this time accompanied by a picture of a pelican. I ask the same question, allowing time for the students to make connections.  (Many will realize the image is of a bird beak or bill, but may not know it is a pelican. This is not crucial for them to identify the exact type of bird.)


Once most (or all) of the students realize the picture is part of a bird or pelican's bill, I hold up a spaghetti server (like the one below).

I pose the following question to the students:

“How is the pelican’s bill like a pasta server?”

I provide a minute or two for think time, then call on volunteers to share their thoughts.  Once several students have had a chance to share, I play a short video which shows the pelican fishing and eating their catch.

I pose the same question again, allowing for additional volunteers to respond. I confirm the students' ideas, reinforcing any missing or incorrect information.

Basically, the students should understand that a pelican's beak needs to be deep enough to catch food and needs to have holes or ridges so that when they tip their heads down, it allows water to flow out, while not losing the food that was just captured.  I explain that all birds have beaks that are adapted to the type of food they eat. I write the word "adaptation" on the board as I mention the word "adapted", so we can refer to and revisit it throughout the lesson.


45 minutes

I tell the students that they will get the chance today to become different types of birds - very hungry birds - that have recently been driven out of their habitat due to development in the area. (You may need to explain this in a little more depth, giving examples of development to provide relevance.) They will now need to migrate, or travel across the country in search of a new home that meets their four basic needs. I show them several different "beaks",  included in the materials I have prepared ahead of time.   I explain to the students that it will be their job to find and catch as many food items as they can using the "beak" that they feel is most suited for the job. I hold up and introduce all of the "beaks" that the students have to choose from, one at a time.

Before starting the simulation, I pass out the Birds and Beaks Worksheet and ask students to hypothesize, with their table groups, which beak would be the best tool for feeding in different locations across the country.

I make sure the students know to read the description of each station that is located at the station itself (see table tents above), as well as on their papers, before beginning each activity. Next, I break the students into 5-6 different groups, assign each one to a specific station to start, and send them on their way! Students will record observations on their worksheet as they rotate through each station.

I give students about 4-5 minutes at each station, in order to allow each member to investigate with several tools (see video examples). This will get loud and maybe a little messy, so be sure to provide a minute at the end of each rotation for students to tidy up!


10 minutes

After all of the groups have completed the investigation at each station and record their observations, I direct them to discuss with their partners which beak would be the best to have in each region and to justify why, recording their conclusions on the Birds and Beaks worksheet.

We come back together as a class and discuss our findings, coming to a consensus about which beak is necessary in each region, and which birds would be best adapted for every environment.


20 minutes

After completing our discussion, we view the short video below, comparing our conclusions to the information presented in the video. I have the students take notes while watching, encouraging them to focus on how the information either confirms or contradicts our findings. (We use this vocabulary precisely, as it promotes acquisition of academic vocabulary and use of correct science terminology.) Observe students during the video to determine if they are able to follow along. You may have to stop and start the video for your students, or watch it twice. 

After watching the video, I have students use Talking Chips to each share 1 confirmation and 1 contradiction. I circulate throughout the room, listening to student conversations and asking questions to clarify student thinking, such as:

  • What did you mean by...?
  • Why do you think this confirms/contradicts your findings?
  • How was your thinking different from what was said in the video?


20 minutes

Now that the students have gained a great deal of knowledge about bird beak adaptations, I want them to see that beaks are not the only body parts designed to adapt to the environment.

Students visit two different websites (below) and explore for 5-10 minutes each.

While exploring the sites, they will complete the adaptation chart on their worksheet independently. By completing this chart, the students will demonstrate understanding of the types of adaptations that are prevalent among birds, as well as their purposes.

They will also analyze this information to determine what birds with each type of adaptation might eat and where they might live.  An example has been provided, not only to help students understand the assignment, but also to provide an exemplar response. It is important to point out to students that the exemplar is there as a tool to guide them in making decisions about how to record their information.

Completion of this final assignment fosters higher order thinking skills and provides the instructor with a clear picture of each student’s understanding and ability to apply their knowledge of adaptations to make hypotheses about animal habitats and feeding practices.