Forest Birds – Activities

FOCUS: The Atlantic Northern Forest, with its many layers of vegetation and abundance of insect prey, provides food and nesting grounds for a wide variety of birds. Whether migratory or resident, birds play an important role in the forest for they help to keep insect populations under control. In the spring, forest birds call for mates and set up territories, filling the woods with a chorus of lively birdsong. A pleasure to see and hear, these jewels of the forest are a valuable part of the forest ecosystem.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about forest birds.

Circle up in a forested area and spend a few minutes just observing. Ask children what  they notice about different places where birds might live in the forest? Note especially the different forest layers.

Materials: optional: picture(s) of Northern forest habitat, Forest Layer Diagram.

Objective: To model how birds avoid competition by foraging in different layers of the forest.

Ask the children to think about this question: Will a bird get more food if it does most of its feeding in one layer, or if it feeds anywhere in the forest? Explain that they will get to model the two ideas.

Ahead of time, label each of four plates with a forest layer (floor, shrub, understory, canopy). Place twenty-five food tokens on each plate and then put each plate in a different location, at different heights if possible, and spaced a ways apart.  Have the children make a circle around the plate on the forest floor. (For large groups, it’s helpful to divide the tokens on the forest floor among two to three plates and space them a few feet apart from each other.) Tell children that they are birds and they will use their “beaks” (thumb and finger) to pick up food tokens one at a time and put them in their other hand to hold. When the leader says “go,” the children will have five seconds to get food, and they must come back to the circle when the leader says “stop.” Tell them they will have a second chance to collect more food later. What happens? (Children mostly crowd around the forest floor plate(s), some getting many seeds, others getting none.)

Using a class roster, record the number of tokens collected by each child; also add up for a total.

Now retrieve the tokens and return them to the original four plates, twenty-five per plate. Divide the class into four groups, and send each group to stand near a different forest layer (four to six children per layer). Repeat as before, allowing about five seconds for the children to collect food tokens. Again, record the number collected by each child. How many got more the second time? Was the total number of tokens collected higher or lower than before? How does it help birds to live and forage in different layers of the forest? (There is less competition for resources.)

Materials: attendance list for the class; four paper plates, each labeled as one forest layer (floor, shrub, understory, canopy); one or two additional paper plates; 100 game tokens of some kind such as acorns or sunflower seeds.

Objective: To meet some forest bird species and learn their special field marks.

Divide the group of children into two teams. Hand out pictures of forest birds such as those listed below to each of the children on one team. Hand out pictures/descriptions of one field mark for each species of bird (e.g. black wings for the scarlet tanager, long bill for the woodcock) to each of the children on the second team. Now, ask the children to find their match on the other team. Have the children form a circle, with partners standing side-by-side, and have each pair introduce their bird and one key field mark to the rest of the group.

American Woodcock:   Shaped like a softball with a long bill.

Ovenbird:  Small, olive-brown, with speckled chest and orange stripe on head.

White-throated Sparrow: small, brown with black and white striped head, white throat, yellow tufts by the beak.

Wood Thrush: Brown, robin-sized, with reddish head and large black spots on chest.

Canada Warbler: small, gray back, yellow chest and black necklace around neck.

Black-capped Chickadee: small, gray and white, with black cap and throat.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Black and white woodpecker with red patch on head and neck, white up-and-down stripe on the wing, and yellowish color on upper chest.

Black-billed Cuckoo: Large, slender, with long tail, black bill, and red eye ring.

Sharp-shinned Hawk: A blue-gray hawk with reddish bars on its chest, hooked beak and long, barred, straight-edged tail.

Blue-headed Vireo: small gray-blue head, white chest, white spectacles, white wing bars.

Scarlet Tanager: Male brilliant red with black wings and tail; smaller than a robin.

Black-throated Green Warbler: small, olive-green, with black throat, yellow face, and two white wing bars.

Have you ever seen any of these birds in winter? (Chickadees are here all year; the others are usually migratory.) How are field marks helpful when identifying birds in the forest?

Materials: Forest Bird Cards and Field Mark Cards.

Objective: To see how different birds occupy specific layers in a forest where they find food or nesting sites.

Using Forest Bird Cards from Field Mark Match, have each pair of children decide, from the “What I eat” or “Where I nest” information and pictures on the card, what layer of the forest their bird occupies for feeding and nesting. Now ask, “Where would your bird go to find food?” Then have each team stand by the appropriate plate from Forest Food Scramble to represent this.

Forest Floor – American woodcock, ovenbird (2)

Shrub – wood thrush, white-throated sparrow, Canada warbler (3)

Understory – yellow-bellied sapsucker, black-capped chickadee, black-billed cuckoo, blue-headed vireo, sharp-shinned hawk (5)

Canopy – scarlet tanager, black-throated green warbler (2)

Have children tell where in the forest their bird finds its food(s). Now ask, “Where would your bird go to build its nest?” (Some of the children will move to a different layer.) How does it help a bird to specialize in finding food in a particular layer of the forest? Do birds spend all their time exclusively in one layer of the forest?

Materials: Forest Bird Cards, four labeled paper plates from Forest Food Scramble activity.

PUPPET SHOW “A Forest Layer Cake”
Objective: To learn some different layers of the forest and discover how the forest inhabitants are linked in a food web.

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. Why do so many migratory birds come to the forest in spring? (Insects.) What would happen if there were no birds to eat the forest insects? (The insects would eat all the leaves.) Give an example of one food chain in the puppet show. (Leaf-caterpillar-bird.)  How does the sapsucker help other forest animals? (Provides a source of energy-rich food for many other species.) What roles do the bear and squirrel play in the forest? (Omnivore and herbivore.) What are some of the different layers of the forest? (Forest floor, shrub, understory, canopy.)

Materials: puppets, script, stage.

Objective: To learn some techniques for using binoculars to watch and identify birds.

Provide each child with a pair of real or cardboard binoculars, or have children work in pairs and share binoculars. Have children stand in a line facing the leader. The leader will pick out objects for the children to look at. Try these drills:

  • Have children look at something with bare eyes first; then without looking away, have them lift binoculars up to their eyes.
  • Have children practice pointing with their hands (without looking away) when they spot something of interest, so that others can find it too.
  • Have children practice calling out nearby objects to help others locate their find.
  • Have children practice following a rolling ball or a ball tossed side to side.
  • Have children practice calling out the basic size of a bird as sparrow-sized, robin-sized, or crow-sized.
  • Have children practice calling out field marks like color, wing bars, beak size, etc.

Older students can practice calling out field marks starting with the bird’s head and working towards the tail.

Materials: a rubber ball for tossing; for each child: real binoculars or cardboard binoculars made from toilet paper tubes taped together.

Objective: To look for birds in a forest and practice identifying them by sight.

Ahead of time, hang colored cardboard cut-outs of birds in the branches of trees or shrubs, or place them on the forest floor, near four stations (marked with a stake or surveyor’s tape) in the forest, three birds at each station. Hand out a Forest Bird Field Guide to each pair of children. In small groups with a leader, stand at each station and have children identify all the birds they can see from that location. Have children call out field marks when they spot each bird, and try to find it on their Forest Bird Field Guide. Keep a record for each station on the Forest Bird data sheet as you rotate through all four stations. Afterward, compare with other groups. Did you identify the birds correctly? What would make it difficult for birds in a forest to find mates? What are some ways that birds communicate with each other in a forest? (Males often bright-colored, songs and calls carry through the dense foliage.)

Materials: four small stakes or surveyor’s tape to mark stations, colored Forest Bird Cut-outs, life-sized or larger, showing accurate field marks, for each small group: Forest Bird Field Guides, Forest Bird Foray data sheet and clipboard; optional: real or cardboard-tube binoculars.

Objective: To model how vocalizing helps birds to attract mates, defend territory, and stay in contact with others of their kind.

Ask children why birds living in a forest might use songs and calls to contact others of their kind. (They are small and hidden by leaves, but their voices carry well.) With the children, practice saying or singing four bird songs: black-billed cuckoo (“cuckoo, coo-coo-coo”), black-throated green warbler (“I’m Black-throated green”), ovenbird (“Teacher, teacher, teacher”), and Canada warbler (“I’m in here and you can’t see me”). You may want to play recordings of each song. Have each child pick a card with a bird and its song. Children should hold onto their cards but keep them secret. Have children form a circle, with one child (“It”) in the center. With eyes closed, “It” must call out its birdsong. All the other children answer with their birds’ songs at the same time. Repeat two or three times. Now “It” looks around (eyes open) and tries to pick out at least one other child of its own bird species. Return cards and pick again; repeat with another child as “It.”  Is it hard to pick out someone singing “your” song? How does it help forest birds to use voices to advertise their territories and find mates? (Easier to hear than to see each other in the forest.)

Materials: Forest Bird Marco Polo cards, one per child; optional: sounds of ovenbird, black-throated green warbler, black-billed cuckoo, and Canada warbler, device to play audio.

FOREST HOME SURVEY: Journal Activity
Objective: To draw a cross-sectional picture of the forest, noting the locations of singing birds.

In small groups with a leader, find a place to sit in the forest. Give each child a small picture frame, or have them make a frame with their hands. Have students take a minute to look at each layer of the forest through their picture frames and talk about what they are seeing in each layer. Then, have them draw a picture in their journals of a cross section of their forest including forest floor, shrub, understory, and canopy layers. Now, ask students to listen for bird sounds, trying to locate the different birds that are singing. Use cartoon bubbles to note the location and sound of each singing bird (e.g. “chip, chip”). How many birds are singing nearby? How many different kinds of birds can they hear? What are some differences they notice about the forest layers? Did they notice birds in different layers of the forest?

Materials: for each child: science journal or clipboard and paper, pencil, small cardboard picture frame; optional: colored pencils.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE:  Clock Directions (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To use the positions of numbers on a clock to locate objects for others to see.

Have students stand in a line one behind the other, with their hands held out to the sides. Have them imagine that their bodies are like the face of an analogue clock. The direction they are facing is twelve o’clock, to the right is three o’clock, to the left is nine o’clock. (It might help to demonstrate with a clock.) As a group, practice picking out and pointing to objects at one o’clock, two o’clock, eleven o’clock, ten o’clock, always with reference to straight ahead being twelve o’clock. (i.e. They should not turn their bodies.)

Now have everyone turn and face a different direction, and try a quiz. The leader picks out objects at different positions for the students to find. For example, the leader might say, “I see something made out of bricks at two o’clock. The students would say “chimney.” Or, “I see something on a post at ten o’clock.” The students would say “bird house.”  Do this in reverse, too. For example, the leader would say, “What’s the location of the blue car?” The students would give the direction as “one o’clock.” In small groups, have the students practice picking out an object, telling its “clock” direction, and having the other group members identify it. How is this helpful when birding in a group? (Helps others to locate the same bird.)

Materials: optional: a large clock face or paper plate on which a clock face is drawn.

Objective: To reflect on the birds that live in our forests and what makes each kind unique.

Have each child complete this sentence: “My favorite of the forest birds I met today is ___________ because ____________.”


Forest Bird Songs: Play recordings of forest bird songs for the students, gradually adding new ones over several weeks so children can build up a familiarity with forest bird songs.

Forest Bird Survey: Take the children on a short walk in the forest every day or every week and keep records of the birds they hear and see as the spring advances. Compare dates with other year’s observations.

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