Birds on the Wing – Activities

FOCUS: Some birds migrate thousands of miles to find the food and shelter they need in winter, but other birds stay right here through the cold months. Which birds migrate and which birds stay? Birds that migrate face many challenges on their journeys, and those that stay here must cope with cold weather, shorter days, and a diminished food supply. All birds must survive this critical stage of their life cycles in order to raise families in the spring.

Objective: To begin to explore bird migration.

Show a picture or video of a flock of migrating geese. Ask children to tell you what might be going on in the photo.

Materials: photo or video of migrating geese.

Objective: To model the connection between diet and migration.

Hand out a Food for Thought card to each child or pair of children. Put up two signs at opposite ends of the room, one saying “Stay” and the other, “Migrate.” Explain that they must all pretend to be birds and that the card shows a clue about their bird (its normal food). Considering the card, children must decide whether they would need to migrate in winter or would be able to stay. Have them discuss this question with their partner and then “fly” to one of the two posters. For younger children, start by giving an example, such as, “I eat frogs. Frogs are hibernating in winter, so I’d better fly south.” Afterward, have each pair explain why they chose to stay or migrate. Do birds decide whether to migrate or is this an innate behavior? (Mostly innate; some species migrate only some years, depending on the food supply.)

Optional: Have children try to flap their arms as fast as different birds need to flap their wings to fly. Beats in ten seconds: crow=20, robin=23, pigeon=30, starling=45, chickadee=270, hummingbird=700.

Materials: Food for Thought cards, one per child or pair of children; signs saying “Stay” and “Migrate.”

PUPPET SHOW “To Fly or Not to Fly”
Objective:  To consider the different challenges faced by resident and migratory birds in winter.

Perform the puppet show, or have a group of children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. What challenges does the chickadee face in winter? (Finding food and shelter, staying warm.) How do they cope? (Grow downy feathers, visit feeders, hide seeds, stay in flocks.) Why do some birds migrate? What are some cues that birds use to navigate? (Sun, stars, waves, landscape, earth’s magnetic field, calls of other birds.) What are some challenges faced by migrating birds? (Finding their way, weather, towers, finding food and shelter along the way, stamina.)

Materials: puppets, script, props.

Objective: To compare the migrations of different migratory birds.

Have children work in small teams (two to four students) to cut out the parts of a Bird Silhouette. Give each group their Great Migrator card and have them read and talk about it together, thinking about which facts are most noteworthy for their bird. Have them find its wintering area on a Western Hemisphere map. Now have teams come forward and make a case for their bird, starting with, “Our bird is a great migrator because…” Present their favorite information about the bird to the whole group. Older children can point out where the bird goes in winter on a large map. Have each group tape their bird silhouette in a visible place. After all have presented, have children go to stand by the silhouette of their favorite or most impressive migrating bird.

Materials: for each small group: Bird Silhouette cut-out, Great Migrator card, Western Hemisphere map (8½x11”), scissors, tape; large, poster-size map of western hemisphere.

Objective: To model a bird’s migration journey and challenges faced along the way.

This is played like a board game. Working with a small group, place the Migration Game Map on a table and have the children gather around. Help them locate your state and the state of Vermont, where this adventure begins. The Four Winds’ logo indicates the path the ruby-throated hummingbird might follow to migrate to Costa Rica. Use a dime or other token for the hummingbird game piece and place it on Vermont. Shuffle the Adventure Cards and place them face down in a pile. Explain that this is a story about a ruby-throated hummingbird and its migration south for the winter. Each child will get to pick a card that tells of an adventure along the way and move the hummingbird token along as directed.

Have the child to your right begin by taking the top adventure card. Read the card aloud to the group. The card tells of a narrow escape and whether the hummingbird can move ahead or not. Now have the child move the hummingbird as instructed on the card (one, two, or three stops south, or zero if the card says to take a rest.) The adult leader may want to tell the children the name of each state as the hummingbird arrives. Have the next child in the circle pick an adventure card for you to read, and so on. Repeat until the hummingbird reaches its destination (Costa Rica).

Optional: supply a healthy fruit drink to celebrate the hummingbird’s arrival in Costa Rica for the winter!

Materials: for each small group: Migration Game Map, two sets of Adventure Cards, game token such as a dime, seed, bean, or other small item; optional: healthy fruit drink and cups.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE – Reading Range Maps (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To use information from bird range maps to determine which birds would be present in winter.

Give each team of children the Bird Range Maps handout. Explain what the colors mean:

Purple = Year-round (found here all year long)

Brownish-orange = Summer (found here only in summer when breeding)

Blue = Winter (found here only in winter)

Yellow = Migration (found here only during migration)

Have the children try to find Vermont on the maps (very small!) and then answer these questions:

  • Which birds are in Vermont all year long? (purple finch, northern cardinal)
  • Which birds are only in Vermont in the winter? (pine grosbeak, common redpoll, hoary redpoll)
  • Which birds are in Vermont in summer? (Baltimore oriole, purple finch, northern cardinal, bobolink, Bicknell’s thrush, barn swallow)
  • Which bird is not usually in Vermont in any season? (Bullock’s oriole)
  • Which bird could be found in Florida all year long? (northern cardinal)
  • Which birds are in Florida in winter? (Baltimore oriole, purple finch, northern cardinal)
  • Which birds are in Florida on migration? (Baltimore oriole, bobolink, barn swallow)
  • Which bird lives farthest to the north of all of these? (hoary redpoll)
  • Which bird has the smallest range of all the birds on these maps? (Bicknell’s thrush)
  • Which bird has the biggest range and lives farthest to the south of these? (barn swallow)

Now challenge each team to come up with a question for the other children to answer from these maps.

Materials: For each pair of students: Reading Range Maps questions, Bird Range Maps page – range maps of Baltimore oriole, Bullock’s oriole, pine grosbeak, purple finch, northern cardinal, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, bobolink, Bicknell’s thrush, and barn swallow, from Cornell’s All About Birds website:

Objective: To model winter survival strategies used by birds that spend winter in northern regions.

Have the children work in small groups and give each team a Stick Around Skit scenario card that describes some ways these birds cope with the challenges of winter. Have them read (or an adult read) the card and then plan a skit based on the scenario. Have each group introduce its bird species by name and then perform a skit, using sounds and simple props as needed. The others should try to guess the winter strategy or strategies used by the bird in the play.

Ruffed Grouse: A flock of grouse feeds on buds in the branches of spruce trees. As evening falls they dive into a snowbank to spend the night, each in its own cozy hollow.

Black-capped Chickadee: Chickadees visit a feeder, each bird taking one seed and carrying it to a nearby branch to peck and eat. Then each bird gets another seed, which it carries to a tree where it hides it in the bark. When the wind blows, they all fluff up their feathers to stay warm.

Blue Jay: A flock of blue jays picks acorns off the branches of an oak tree. They carry five at a time in their mouths, flying to a place where they will hide them away for winter. They drop them in a pile on the ground and bury each one in a different place, then fly away.

American Crow: A large group of crows forages together in a farm field, eating leftover corn they find on the ground. When they spot a hawk, they make loud raucous “caw, caw” calls to alert other crows and chase off the hawk.

Golden-crowned Kinglet: Kinglets pick tiny insects and eggs from branches and buds of trees. At night time they call out to each other with high-pitched peeps and then huddle together in evergreen trees.

White-breasted Nuthatch: Nuthatches peck at the bark of tree trunks and branches, often head-down, looking for insects to eat. At night each bird goes to its own nook in a hollow tree to sleep.

Materials: Stick Around Skits scenario cards; optional: props such as white sheet, evergreen boughs, bird feeder, sunflower seeds, a few acorns or props (e.g. pom-poms, beads) to represent acorns.

Objective: To model the effect of environmental obstacles on migration success.

Take the children outside and set up a large game area using gym cones to mark the corners. Have the children line up shoulder to shoulder along one edge. Explain that they are birds and will try to migrate to the far side of the rectangle. Those that arrive will have migrated successfully to their wintering grounds. Now ask for ideas about environmental obstacles that might hinder birds along the way, such as those mentioned in the puppet show. Select five children to be the obstacles and hand out Migration Obstacle cards for them to wear around their necks. Position them so they are spaced evenly apart within the rectangular playing area. Now explain that the obstacles will try to tag the migrating birds as they fly. They must keep both feet planted on the ground and one hand behind their backs, and they must try to tag birds (gently) with their free arm. A bird that is tagged must go outside the playing area, but they can “die” dramatically, falling to the ground. Count how many birds successfully reach their wintering grounds each round. Now try reducing the number of obstacles. Do more birds get through to their winter homes?

For older children, choose man-made obstacles such as lighted towers, airplanes, power lines, wind turbines, or habitat destruction. After the first round, ask for suggestions about ways to eliminate any of these obstacles. Try playing the game with only three obstacles. How did the success rate compare to that with five obstacles?

Materials: Migration Obstacle cards on strings to wear around the neck, four gym cones.

Objective: To make observations about birds and their behavior outside or at a feeder.

Provide children with real or cardboard-tube binoculars and take them outside to a place where they might find birds. Be sure they are warmly dressed. Bird feeders, hedgerows, weedy areas, and wetlands are places where birds can often be found in winter. Look for a bird that everyone can see. Practice using binoculars to view the bird. Then, using the Four Winds Bird Record card, ask guiding questions to help children describe and perhaps identify it with Some Common Winter Birds or a field guide. Afterwards, older children may want to observe a bird on their own, filling out the record sheet themselves. What are some questions children have about our winter birds?

Four Winds Bird Record


Location: ______________    Date:  _________________   Name(s)________________

  1. Size of bird:
  • Sparrow
  • Robin
  • Crow
  • Goose
  1. Main color(s) of bird (circle all that apply):

black  gray  white  brown  red

yellow  green  blue  orange

  1. Where is the bird?
  • At a feeder
  • On the ground
  • In trees or bushes
  • On a fence or wire
  • Swimming or wading
  • Soaring or flying
  1. What kind of bird do you think it might be?
  2. Are there others like it nearby? How many?
  3. Is it making any sound? Singing or calling?
  4. Do you think this bird lives here all year?
  5. What makes you think this?

Use the guide, Some Common Winter Birds, to try to identify the birds that you see.


Winter Birding Tips:

  1. Dress warmly.
  2. Use your ears – listen for tiny peeps and chickadee calls, which will guide you to where flocks are located. (Be very quiet so you can hear better.)
  3. Visit feeders, hedgerows, different kinds of habitats.
  4. Look high and low.

Binocular Practice:

  1. Look first, then raise binoculars without moving your eyes.
  2. Describe the bird out loud: size, colors, markings.
  3. Compare to your birding guide.

Optional: Give children a copy of Some Common Winter Birds to tally birds at home.

Materials: for each child: binoculars or two cardboard tubes taped together to make rudimentary binoculars, bird field guide or Some Common Winter Birds; optional: Four Winds Bird Record cards, clipboards, pencils.

Objective: To model chickadee behavior in fall, storing seeds in caches for the winter.

Ahead of time, count out twenty sunflower seeds for each child or pair of children and place them in small bags. Explain that the children will model chickadee behavior in fall, storing seeds in caches for winter. Give the children boundaries so they know where they can hide their seeds (keeping them away from buildings where the seeds might attract mice.) Ask them to find hiding places for small groups of seeds, spread out over the designated area. It’s best to keep the caches above the likely snow level. Afterwards, have them try to make a list of their cache locations. Can they remember them all? Keep the lists, and over the winter have them watch for chickadee activity near the caches. Check weekly to see if any seeds disappear. How many seeds remain at the end of winter? What other animals might find and eat the seeds?

Materials: for each child or pair of children: a small bag of twenty sunflower seeds to hide.

Objective: To make maps or write stories about a bird that stays or migrates in winter.

Have children pretend they are birds and draw a map in their journals of what their home “territory” would look like to a bird. Where are they at different times of day, where do they go to get groceries, where will they sleep at night? Afterwards, share maps in small groups.

Or ask children to write about an adventure that the bird on their passport might have during migration. They may want to make an illustration for the story as well.

Materials: journals or clipboards, paper, pencils; optional: colored pencils.

Objective: To reflect on new learning about bird migration and winter survival.

Ask the children to complete this sentence: “If I were a bird, I would get through the winter by ____________.”


Bird Feeder Bert Set up a Bird Feeder Bert by making a scarecrow child who sits in a chair holding a tray of birdseed. Place a large-brimmed hat on its head to shade its face. Set it up in a sheltered area and give the birds a week or so to find and adapt to feeding from the scarecrow’s tray. Then remove the scarecrow and let a child sit in its place. Place the scarecrow’s hat over the child’s own winter hat and have him or her sit as quietly as possible holding the tray of birdseed. You can also sprinkle extra seed on the student’s head and shoulders; then, with the rest of the class, wait in a hidden spot nearby for the birds to return. Within minutes, birds will be landing and feeding on the birdseed. It’s a great way to give children a close up look at our winter birds. The classroom teacher can follow up on later days by giving all children a turn to sit in the chair and hold the tray of seed. Adapted from Parrella, Deborah, Project Seasons. Shelburne Farms Books, 1999.

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