To the delight of the kids, we’ve moved into vertebrate animals in our 10-week survey course this week. I created a chart (similar to the invertebrate chart I shared previously) with which the students could use to compare and contrast the five vertebrate animal classes as they took notes during the lecture portion of class.  However, I was surprised to discover that they could essentially fill it out without any input from me. They were experts on vertebrates.


Birds belong to a larger group of animals called vertebrates (animals with backbones) and they make up a special group or class of the vertebrates called Aves.  Aves is the Latin word for bird.  All birds share many characteristics.

Feather Lab

Birds are the only animals in the world with feathers. There are two main types of feathers: contour feathers, which are found on the bird’s body, wings, and tail; and down feathers, which are fluffier and softer and lie close to a bird’s body, under the contour feathers. I showed the class a contour feather and explained that the hard center tube is called the shaft and the rest of the feather is the vane.  The shaft is a hollow tube made of a very hard material called keratin (the same material of which a reptile’s scales and our fingernails are made).

The vane is made up of hundreds of barbs that look like skinny hairs coming offing the shaft in rows.  Under a microscope you can see that tiny barbules grow off each of the barbs.  These barbules have rolled edges on one side and tiny hooks on the other that interlock side by side much like a ziplock seal.  We observed a feather beneath the microscope and the kids were encouraged to sketch and label their observations.  Encourage the kids to sketch and label the parts of a feather in their notebook.

Download the lab notebook printable, Feather Lab.

Bird Anatomy

We then talked about the other characteristics that make a bird different from other animals – wings, bone structure, binocular vision, excellent hearing, poor sense of smell, air sacs attached to each lung, and a crop and gizzard to aid in digestion. We played a fun relay game and then focused on bird adaptations using a number of stations that were set up to simulate bird beaks.

fill the bill thumb

We discussed the shape and design of different bird beaks and how the design helps birds to survive.  Eight stations were set up around the room, each with a different type of “food” that fits one of the eight different types of beaks described (e.g. styrofoam peanuts in a small aquarium of water to represent fish, a test tube of water to represent flower nectar). At each station there were three tools (e.g. chopsticks, pipette, tongs, slotted spoon), each representing a different type of bird beak function – one tool that worked well to get the food and two that didn’t work so well.  The students were asked to visit each station and to decide which tool would be the most efficient.  They were then asked to identify which food different birds would eat based on the shape of their beak.

To accompany this activity, I’ve created a slide presentation, Fill the Bill, available as a free download to my subscribers (a thumbnail is shown above).  Following this activity, we gathered in teams to play a relay-style game called Pass the Part.  The kids had a lot of fun.  Both of these activities were adapted from activities described in Birds, Birds, Birds! (Ranger Rick’s Naturescope Series).

Extension Activities

To expand upon what we covered, I suggested many extenstion or enrichment activities and the students were encouraged to choose at least one to do at home.

  • Begin a bird life list and go on a bird outing. You can find numerous local bird checklists online. 
  • Consider entering the US Fish & Wildlife Federal Junior Duck Stamp Program and Scholarship Competition.
  • Find a picture of your favorite bird (or draw one of your own) and then label the parts of the bird (crown, rump, breast, belly, primary feathers, nape, crest, throat, mandible, chest, thigh, chin, eye-ring, tail feathers, etc.)
  • Draw pictures of birds in their nature journal – use a field guide to help with details
  • Use Barb’s Outdoor Hour Challenge as inspiration to observe and study bird feet – Woodpecker Bird Study
  • Do a research report on a bird of choice
  • Create a poster that compares/contrasts the five vertebrate animal groups
  • Do a bird survey in your backyard.  I’ve created a free notebooking page to aid in recording your observations.

Download the Bird Survey Data Form

bird survey notebooking page

I’d like to encourage everyone to do the bird survey.  This is a fun family activity and a great way to contribute to ongoing citizen science.  Get started now and become acquainted with the birds in your area.  You will then be very knowledgeable, and can easily identify most (if not all) of the birds in your backyard for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count in February 2014.  I will be sharing more about this wonderful citizen science project as we get closer.  I hope you will join us.


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