Birds of a Feather – Activities

FOCUS: All birds share a similar body plan with two legs, beaks, wings, light-weight bones, and feathers. Unique to birds, feathers are an extremely versatile body covering. They provide warm, light-weight insulation, a streamlined shape, colors and patterns for hiding or attracting a mate, and of course they are essential for flight. Birds live in a variety of different habitats, eating a wide range of foods. Each species’ beak, feet, shape, color, and behavior are adapted to meet its particular needs.

NOTE: It is illegal to possess feathers or other parts of birds without having the required state and federal permits.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about bird bodies.

Give small groups of children a variety of feathers to examine, one per child if it is windy, and ask them to discuss what they notice and wonder about them.

Materials: a variety of feathers (obtained from a licensed owner or craft supply store) – one per child, magnifying lenses.

Objective: To observe different kinds of feathers, considering their different functions.

Give each child a feather. Ask the children to sort themselves into groups with similar feathers. They might sort themselves by color, pattern, size, or another characteristic. Ask for suggestions of other ways the feathers could be sorted. Afterward, explain that feathers are shaped and formed in different ways for different purposes. Another way to sort them would be by form and function. Read the questions below, and ask children to hold up the appropriate feather:

Which feather might work best to keep the bird warm?
Hint- it’s really fluffy and can trap lots of air.

(These feathers are delicate with a thin central shaft and long, thin, flexible fringes. They don’t zip together the way other feathers do. Usually they are white or gray and don’t show any of the bird’s particular patterns or colors. These are called Downy feathers. )

Which feather would make a good body covering?
Hint: the base is fluffy where it attaches to the skin for warmth and the top is smooth where it overlaps with other feathers to make the bird’s colors and patterns.

(These feathers overlap like shingles on a roof to cover and protect every part of the bird’s body. The downy part is gray or white. The smooth part may show patterns that make spots, stripes, or other designs on the bird. These are called “body-covering” or contour* feathers.)

Which feather would be good for flying?

Hint- it would need to be stiff for pushing against the air.

(These feathers are long and thin with smooth surfaces so the air will flow over them easily. Sometimes they are narrower on one side than the other. They might be white, colored, or have different patterns. They are found on the bird’s wings or tail and are called flight feathers.)

*In some texts, the term “contour feathers” includes both body-covering and flight feathers, but here we consider them as two separate types of feathers because they have very different functions.

Now show children the Feather Types diagram and have them sort their feathers into the three types in the illustration. They might need an “other” category for confusing feathers. Have them use lenses to look at downy and smooth parts of feathers. What differences do they notice? (Downy feathers are very flexible, not stiff.) Can they “zip” up the downy feathers? (No.) How are the central shafts in downy and contour feathers different from flight feathers? (Shorter, thinner, more flexible.) Look at the colors in the feathers and notice how they might fit together to make different patterns.

Materials: a selection of different kinds of bird feathers (from a licensed owner or craft supply store) including downy, contour, and flight feathers; magnifying lenses, Feather Types diagram.

Objective: To examine closely and record observations about the structure of flight feathers.

Have each child choose a flight feather to examine. Ask the children to describe their feathers as you draw one on the board. Have children draw their feather in their journals. Older children should label the parts and make notes about their observations.

Point out various features of feathers such as:

  • Shaft – Does it appear to be hollow or solid? (Hollow – makes it lighter.) Is it smooth or grooved? (Often grooved, which adds strength.)
  • Quill (This is where the feather attaches to the skin.) – Why might this have been used in feather pens? (The tip could be sharpened and would hold some ink.)
  • Vane – Is it symmetrical or lop-sided? (Often not symmetrical in flight feathers, the leading edge being narrower than the trailing edge.)
  • Barbs – Show them how to separate one barb from the rest, then zip together again.
  • Barbules (the fringes on the barbs) – Use magnifying lenses to see these; note how they hook together to make a solid vane.
  • Colors or patterning – How do these help the bird? (Dull colors and patterns help with camouflage; brighter colors help males advertise for a mate and defend territory.)

Have the children hold the feather lightly in one hand and wave it back and forth to feel the wind resistance. Do they think their feather is more likely a wing feather or a tail feather? If it seems to be a wing feather, which way does it move more easily? Can they tell if it was from a right or left wing? What are some questions they have about feathers?

Materials: flight feathers – one per child – from a licensed owner or craft supply store; whiteboard and markers or chalk board and chalk; journals or clipboards and paper, pencils, magnifying lenses; optional: colored pencils.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Feathers up Close (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To examine closely and record observations of feather structure.

After drawing a flight feather and labeling the parts in the above activity, have older students separate the barbs and examine them with a magnifying lens to see the barbules, or, if available, with a microscope to see the barbicels (tiny hooks and bumps on the barbules). On a Feather Sketch sheet, have them draw a barb as seen through the lens or microscope. Now have them pick a downy feather to examine. Compare and if possible draw the barbs on a downy feather. Compare several of each type of feather. How are the barbs different from those on a flight feather?  What are some questions they have about feathers based on their observations?

Materials: flight, downy, and contour feathers; Parts of a Feather diagram; journals or clipboard and paper or Feather Sketch sheets, pencils, magnifying lenses; optional: microscope.

Objective: To make observations about the structure of a bird’s wing and model its function.

To begin, have children hold out their arms, noticing how we have an upper arm, forearm, and hand, as well as elbow and wrist joints. Show them a preserved bird’s wing, and the Wing and Arm Bones diagram showing the bones inside a wing. Point out the similarities and differences between our arm bones and the bones of a wing and have them think about where the different flight feathers are attached. What do they notice about the shape of different feathers? (Some are asymmetrical, some have notches, patterns line up to make stripes, etc.) What do they notice about the shape of the wing, compared to an airplane wing? (Similar shape.) Can children tell whether it is a right or left wing? Wave the wing up and down to feel how it pushes against the air. Notice how the smaller feathers are arranged in layers like shingles on a roof. Why is this helpful? (For shedding water.) What are some questions they have about wings and flight in birds?

Materials: a preserved bird’s wing from licensed holder, Wing and Arm Bones diagram, magnifying lenses.

Objective: To model the flight patterns of different kinds of birds.

Play Follow the Leader imitating the flight patterns of different birds such as those listed below:

  • Songbird: flap arms as you walk back and forth.
  • Hawks: walk around in a circle with arms outstretched as though soaring like a Red-tailed hawk.
  • Another hawk flight pattern common in woodland hawks is three wing beats and then a glide. Say, “Flap, flap, flap, glide” as you imitate this pattern.
  • Turkey Vulture: hold arms outstretched and a little upwards (forming a “V” shape) and tip a bit to this side and that as you circle.
  • Woodpeckers and many small song birds have an undulating flight. They go up and down as they open and then fully close their wings in flight. To imitate this, open and close your arms as you walk forward: step, step, close, etc.
  • Ducks flap their wings fast. Have children tuck hands under arms and flap elbows quickly.
  • Hummingbirds: stand in one place while flapping hands very quickly (hummingbirds actually do a figure eight).
  • Geese: strong, regular wingbeats. You may want to call like Canada Geese (males say “A-honk” and females say “Hink”), as you fly. Have children go into a V-formation to end this activity.

Or use this poem with accompanying arm motions to end:

Put your arms in a V for a Vulture

Put your arms out straight for a Hawk

Never in a hurry for an Eagle

Always in a hurry for a Duck–quack quack!

Materials: optional: adult may want to bring along the list above to remember the different kinds of flight.

Objective: To look for birds outside and survey their activities in winter.

In small groups with an adult leader, walk around the school grounds to observe bird behavior. If possible, keep a list of bird activities to compare with other groups. Visit several different locations, looking and listening for birds. If possible, spend time near a bird feeder where it is easier to get a close-up look at bird behavior.


Find a bird and have the children try to answer these questions:

About how big is the bird? (Size of a sparrow, robin, crow, larger?)

Describe the bird starting at the head and working to the tail, noticing colors, patterns, and shapes. Have children call out their observations and record them. Older students may try to find the bird in a field guide.

How is it using its feet? (Perched on a branch, standing on the ground, walking, hopping?)

How is it using its beak? (Preening, pecking at seeds?)

If flying, how does it use its wings? (Soaring, hovering, flapping?)

Describe any sound it makes. What do you think it might be trying to communicate?

For a group of birds, what do they seem to be doing? Why might they flock together with others in winter?


Have the children watch the feeder for a while before answering the questions:

Which birds eat mostly at the feeder; which birds mostly eat seeds on the ground?

If there is suet, which birds visit it? How do they use beak, feet, tail at the suet?

Pick one kind of bird at the feeder to observe more closely. (eg. chickadee, finch, woodpecker).

How does it use its beak and feet?

Does it eat at the feeder or carry a seed away?

Does it let other birds onto the feeder when it is feeding?

Now study another kind of bird on the feeder or on the ground under it. Is its behavior the same or different?

Afterward, gather the children together and share notes about bird watching. What was the most interesting bird behavior that the children observed?

Materials: for each group: Outdoor Bird Watching card, Some Common Winter Birds sheet, clipboard, pencil; optional: real or cardboard tube binoculars, field guides to birds; for Feeder Watching, an active bird feeder.

PUPPET SHOW “Fine Feathers Fashion Revue”
Objective: To learn how different physical and behavioral adaptations allow birds to feed on different foods and live in many different habitats.

Perform the puppet show or have the children perform it for their classmates. Afterward ask questions to review key details and vocabulary. Ask children what feature birds have that is found in no other animals. (Feathers.) How are birds different from other animals like turtles, rabbits, or frogs? (Only two legs, wings, feathers, beaks, no teeth.) Ask children to name the adaptations of the different birds in the puppet show and how they help each to survive. (Woodcock – camouflage, long, sensitive beak to get worms; cardinal – bright color to defend territory and attract a mate, seed-cracking bill; duck – webbed feet, strainer bill, waterproof feathers, blue jay – loud voice to mob predators.)

Materials: puppets, script, props, stage.

Objective: To observe different kinds of bird feet and model how they function in the bird’s life.

Give each small group of children a Bird Feet photo set. The photos show birds with different kinds of feet including Paddlers (webbed feet for swimming), Grabbers (raptor feet for grabbing prey), Perchers (perching feet for holding onto branches), Scratchers (scratching feet for ground-feeders), Climbers (climbing feet as in woodpeckers), and Waders (long-toed feet as in herons). Ahead of time, in each set put a circle around a different foot-type card (to be used later for the pantomimes). Have the children match foot-type cards with birds. Adults may need to use the key provided to identify the birds.

Now pass around preserved bird feet (obtained from a licensed owner) for children to handle (if they are comfortable doing this) and observe closely with magnifying lenses, noticing texture and shape, talons and feathering. Compare to the photos of bird feet, considering whether any of the preserved feet are similar to those in the pictures.

Afterward have the groups take turns  performing a pantomime of the bird circled in their set (without telling the others which bird it is), using their hands to act out the way the bird uses its feet (e.g. paddling through the water like ducks). After each group does its pantomime, the others try to guess the kind of feet they were acting out.

Materials: preserved bird feet from a licensed owner; magnifying lenses; for each small group: Bird Feet photo set and key.

Objective: To view photos of bird adaptations and notice how birds’ beaks, feet, and feathers are suited to their life style.

Show pictures of birds that illustrate specialized feathers, wings, feet and beaks and ways in which they are suited to the bird’s food, habitat, and way of life.

Materials: Birds of a Feather Slide Show including photos of birds with specialized feathers, wings, feet, and bills, Birds of a Feather Slide Show Script.

Objective: To design and build or draw a model of an imaginary bird with special adaptations for its needs and habitat.

Have children work with a partner or small group to construct a bird out of craft materials. Give each team a Crazy Avian card describing the food, habitat, and/or behavior of an imaginary bird, such as a bird that:

  • eats fish but cannot swim
  • lives in open grassland and eats seeds that grow on tall plants
  • uses its feet to dig up worms and hides in evergreen trees
  • eats the roots of underwater plants
  • catches mosquitos in the forest while flying
  • hangs onto branches while eating nuts on trees
  • runs on deep snow with special feet and nibbles tree branches at night
  • eats lily pads whole with a special beak while swimming around the pond
  • catches frogs in tall grass with grasping feet and attracts mate with long tail
  • catches moths at night while perching on the tops of tall trees
  • eats mushrooms that grow inside hollow trees
  • hangs onto the sides of trees and rocks using its beak to eat insects hidden in cracks

Children should think about what kind of beak, feet, shape, coloration, or other adaptations their bird would need to suit its lifestyle and include these in their model. Have students give their bird a name and, in small groups, introduce it and describe its special adaptations.

Materials: Crazy Avian cards, one per team; cardboard, cardstock, craft paper, glue, tape, craft feathers, modeling clay, pipe-cleaners, or other craft supplies; optional: Crazy Avian template.


Feeder Watch:  Watch activity at a bird feeder every day. Keep records of the numbers and kinds of birds visiting the feeder at the same time each day, for a specified length of time (e.g. 15 minutes). How do the activity level and types of birds visiting change over the season?

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