Feeder watching teaches students how to identify birds, observe their feeding and social habits, and begin to take simple data. Photo Credit (c) 2011 Kim M. Bennett.
Why Volunteer to Collect Data?
For the past 20 years, my family has participated in many “citizen science” programs. Research projects that use volunteer data collectors are extremely beneficial, for several reasons:
- You are collecting real data for a real (BIG) research project, giving the task a real-world purpose;
- The “lessons” are already done for you, and the projects usually have a wealth of resources to help you plan other studies;
- The set up of the project reinforces important research skills in the volunteer participants;
- Because so many people participate, the body of scientific knowledge is greatly expanded;
- The small fee you pay to participate (it’s very small) supports further research — a great opportunity to teach kids about responsible giving.
Here are some programs that you can enroll in, to combine your own feeder studies with major studies.
Our Time with Project FeederWatch
My family has participated in Project FeederWatch for 20 years. We have learned so much by spending just a short time watching birds each week (of course, we watched them way more than the observation time, because we enjoyed the project so much!).
During our studies, we learned the following things:
- Tufted titmice will fight over leftover cooked broccoli that is left on a feeding table;
- The fur from your pet Shetland sheepdog’s doggy brush will disappear if you leave it under your bird feeder in the spring;
- Bluebirds will stay all year if you have berry suet (here in CT);
- Wild turkeys might run away (at first) when your neighbor’s cat jumps into the group, but the cat will be sorry he tried to eat turkey for dinner;
- Cooper’s Hawks will catch their lunch (birds) straight from the bird feeder;
- Goldfinches will land on you by the dozens and wait for you to fill the feeder after a snowstorm;
- And chickadees will sit nearby and scold you at the same time.
- A seed block under the feeder will attract grouse, pheasants and other large birds;
- Even birds that don’t eat seeds (hawks, phoebes, owls, e.g.) will be attracted to all the activity when you feed the ones that do;
- Once a year, about 300 grackles (with a few blackbirds and cowbirds) will descend on your yard, eat all the seed, then leave.
A great feeding station has several different types of feeders and several different types of food, to attract the greatest variety of feeder birds. Photo credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett
About the Program
Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology
Data Collection Dates:
November through April
North America (United States and Canada)
According to the Project FeederWatch website:
“The massive amounts of data collected by FeederWatchers across the continent help scientists understand
- long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance
- the timing and extent of winter irruptions of winter finches and other species.
- expansions or contractions in the winter ranges of feeder birds
- the kinds of foods and environmental factors that attract birds
- how disease is spread among birds that visit feeders”
$15 ($12 for Lab Members)
What you get:
Posters, data collection forms and/or a link for online submission, a newsletter and tons of great online tools, articles and other links about this and other birding programs at Cornell.
For more information:
See the Project FeederWatch home page. If you happen to be in the Ithaca, New York Area, please do make it a point to visit Sapsucker Woods, the home of the Cornell birding world. Cornell is my alma mater — it’s worth a visit if you’re in that part of New York.
Some migratory birds, like the bluebirds that we watched all winter, will stay up north during mild winters, if your feeding station has the right assortment of food available. Photo credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett
Keeping it Simple
If you don’t want to jump in with both feet and join Project FeederWatch, you
can still conduct simpler feeder watching studies in your backyard or outside your classroom window. All you need are a few items:
Spend about 15 minutes a day watching the birds. Decide how you will collect data. Here are some options:
- Count the maximum number of birds of a particular species at the feeder at a given time (e.g., if you count three chickadees, mark 3; then, if one flies off and two others fly in, mark 4) – this gives you an idea of the overall number of the birds at your feeder, although you don’t know if it’s the same ones or different ones.
- Count the number of visits to the feeder, no matter how many or few birds this represents — this gives you an idea of the interest in the food being offered, but doesn’t give you as much of an idea of the number of birds there.
- Count the individual birds coming to the feeder — this is nearly impossible unless you know your individual birds by sign (unlikely), but would give the most accurate answer to the question, “How many birds are coming to my feeder?”
- Count the number of different species coming to the feeder — this works nicely when you compare the diversity from week to week, especially as you head into migration times of the year.
See “Feeding Birds: An Experiment (Or Two…)” for a very simple study of feeder birds.
Watch future posts on Simple Science Strategies for more information on other programs at Cornell, including their online Ornithology classes. NestWatch, Project Tanager, and many others. Also look for information on American Robin, a website dedicated to citizen science and the migration habits of the American Robin.
Tell us all about how you use bird feeding to hone your students’ observation skills. Don’t forget to post your link in the Simple Science Strategies September Blog Carnival by 9/28/2012.
Posted in Life Sciences, LS 4: Biological Evolution: Unity and diversity, Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
Tagged American Robin, bird feeding, birds, citizen research, data collection, migration, NestWatch, Project FeederWatch, Project Tanager, research projects
[Edited and re-blogged from “A Child’s Garden,” September 2011. All photographs (c)2010-11, Kim M. Bennett/Simple Science Strategies.]
We originally completed this study last fall, but are re-submitting this for the current SSS Blog Carnival, because it made good use of the “One Small Square” Strategy, the focus strategy for Week 3 of the September Newsletter, and focused on mushrooms, the topic for Week 2!
Mushrooms love the wood chips in my flower bed (Hartford, Connecticut, 2011).
We sure have had some wild weather here in New England at the end of the Summer of 2011. We have had so much rain that the crop of mushrooms sprouting up everywhere has been very interesting and incredible.
Fall, especially the Back to School time, is always a prime time to go mushroom exploring, with the warm days, cool nights and more frequent rain. Also be on the look-out for mushroom cousins, the slime molds and actinomycetes, that you probably mistake for their more well-known family members. Here is a mushroom study that you can do for September.
Tiny shelf fungi on a dead tree. (Fenton-Ruby Park and Preserve, Willington, Connecticut, 2010.)
- Read up on mushrooms. The Handbook of Nature Study has a very thorough discussion of many of the types of fungi that you might see on an expedition, on pages 714-727. If you read a little further, you can learn about their indoor cousins, the bread molds (pp. 727-728).
- The Handbook of Nature Study website has an Autumn Outdoor Hour Challenge on Mushrooms that has excellent links to videos, notebooking pages and other resources.
- Gather materials you might need for a mushroom study: clipboards and pencils, hand lenses, a long plant tag or flag to mark your mushroom spot, plastic food service gloves.
- Read One Small Square: Practice Looking Closely at the World and Outdoor Hour Challenge #9: One Small Square for descriptions of how to carry out the observation activity.
- Prepare observation sheets for each child.
- Review routines: “How to Work With a Partner.”
- Teach safety rules about potentially poisonous plants.
Honey mushrooms in a shady flower bed. (Hartford, Connecticut, 2010).
Observing Mushrooms and Their Cousins:
A mushroom study lends itself well to a multiple-day observation, since the fruiting body of most fungi only remains for a few days, and changes considerably with time and the weather.
Step 1: Note the location of some fungi on a nature walk.
Some places to look include wood chipped areas of a school flower garden or playground, rotting logs, tree stumps, and places where a tree once stood. At this time of year, a whole crop can pop up literally overnight, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see any on a particular day.
Be on the lookout for the little “buttons” of some mushrooms that look like tan bumps before they sprout up the next day.
Step 2: Use the One Small Square technique to sketch what you observe.
Step 3: Mark the location with a stick or “flag” so you can find it the next day.
Step 4: Return to sketch changes for the next few days, until the mushroom collapses.
Mushrooms change very quickly from day to day, which is exciting for kids. Note the weather each time you observe (that day’s as well as the weather from previous days). These observation forms have a place to record the weather.
Each day you observe, ask the students some questions:
- How did your mushroom change? Why do you think this happened?
- What was the weather like the day before? How might that have affected the mushroom?
- What type of weather do mushrooms prefer? If you don’t know, how can you find out?
- Where are the mushrooms growing? What is the ground like there? Are there any trees around?
- Do you see any insects around the mushroom? What are they doing?
- Does your mushroom have a smell? (Make sure that children don’t handle the mushrooms without wearing gloves, because some poisonous mushrooms resemble harmless ones.)
Study the Anatomy of a Mushroom —
- Enchanted Learning has a diagram of a gilled mushroom that students can label, to learn the anatomy of one type of mushroom.
- The Mushroom Lady has a pile of activities that will get your kids really studying mushrooms in-depth.
Learn About Mushroom Relatives —
- Here is a handy sheet of terms that you might want to study, so that you correctly distinguish between fungi, actinomycetes, slime molds and other fungus-like organisms.
Study Edible Mushrooms (and Eat Them!) —
- Create a mushroom study station with stereoscopes and various edible mushrooms from your grocer’s produce department: shiitake, oyster, portabella, white button, straw, crimini…
Fairy Rings, Faerie Houses and Other Literacy Connections —
- Study the folklore surrounding fairy rings and faerie houses.
- Build a faerie house (or two or 10…) along your school nature trail or in your backyard garden.
Faeries and other woodland creatures — literacy connection!
A voyage of scientific discovery is as near as your own backyard. There you’ll find a busy hub, full of creepers and crawlers, lifters and leapers, singers, buzzers, climbers, builders, and recyclers. It’s a place where children can smell, listen, look, and get a hands-on feel for life, all in one small square of land and air. Backyard is just one of the exciting, vibrantly illustrated volumes in the critically acclaimed One Small Square series of science and nature books for children. Click on the photo (right) for information on ordering this great addition to your homeschool or classroom science library. (Helpful hint: I had multiple copies for my science center).
Posted in Botany Journaling, Describing Using Adjectives, Life Sciences, LS 2: Ecosystems: Interactions, energy, and dynamics, Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
Tagged backyard, fungi, meter square, mushrooms, nature study, observation, One Small Square, outdoor education, quadrat studies
Here are some handy resources you can print out for use with this strategy:
I spent seven years of my teaching career as a third grade teacher in an urban school district. The elementary school where I taught was actually located at the edge of town, so we had a school full of kids from the city, attending school in the country. The children delighted in the horses that lived at the farm next door, and enjoyed just rolling in the grass and watching the butterflies in our nature garden.
While working on building nature activities to give the students experiences which they had not previously had, I stumbled upon the One Small Square Series of non-fiction children’s books, by Donald Silver. Each 48-page book covers a different habitat, and guides kids through a close-up look at what you might find if you observed one small piece of that habitat.
- Cactus Desert
- Night Sky
- African Savanna
- Arctic Tundra
- Coral Reef
There are over a dozen titles in the One Small Square series, by Donald Silver. For the remainder of this post, I will focus only on Backyard, for the following reasons:
- While people reading the post might live in different parts of the country, and (hence) in different biomes, everyone has something that they can call a “backyard” – a patio, a planter, a parking lot, a school garden, a playground, or a park. The learning tasks in Backyard can be performed in any kind of outdoor area, including one of the other biomes.
- The Charlotte Mason Method of instruction recommends beginning nature studies with the child’s own surroundings, then moving to exotic locations. In all instruction, we do well to connect new information with what the learner already knows. See “Nature Study: Charlotte Mason’s Cure for Tired, Text-Taught Tots” for more on the Charlotte Method philosophy of outdoor education.
- Becoming familiar with the “One Small Square” method of nature study in one’s backyard makes the other studies easier.
One Small Square: Backyard, from $2.96 at Barnes & Noble. Click image for ordering information.
50 Helpful Links for Use With One Small Square: Backyard
These two links provide helpful reviews of the series, one by readers through Google Books, and another from a homeschooler:
Cornerstones of Science provides excellent reviews of many fiction and non-fiction books that can be used in your science instruction. Search by title, topic, author, grade and reading level.
Lesson and Unit Plans
This section includes a huge variety of types of web links, from .pdf versions of lesson plans to print out and put in your public school lesson plan books, to laid-back, Charlotte Mason-style homeschool nature studies using Backyard, to unit studies compiled by the National Park Service. You will find plans for preschool through high school students in this list. I think the list is exciting! And all materials are free.
[NOTE: While I did select only links that were relevant (i.e., contained actual lesson plans, included appropriate learning tasks, used Backyard as a “spine” and addressed important educational goals), a site’s presence on the list does not mean that all linked lessons will align with state or national standards (although many provide this information for you). The teacher always has to consider the needs of her own students, as well as any school or state requirements, when choosing lessons and curriculum. ]
Many who used Backyard as a basis for their lessons tied it into studies of soils, life underground and worms. For older students, the “meter square” links introduce the idea of quadrat studies, in-depth, scientific investigations of the plants, animals, soil, light and weather of a specific area used in the field of ecology. See also the Creative Curriculum link (which describes a center-based learning approach to teaching with the book).
- “A Simple Meter Square,” Smithsonian Biodiversity Science in the Classroom
- “Backyard Nature Study: A Surprise Visitor,” Homepreschool and Beyond
- “Cycles of Life in an Urban Habitat: Changes in Biodiversity,” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
- “Down the Rabbit Hole,” The Tiger Chronicle
- “Earth Day 2006,” Earth Day
- “Ecology,” cstone.net
- “Helping an Old Friend: Our Own Backyard,” Houston Teacher’s Institute
- “Inquiry for Everyone: Authentic Science Experiences for Students,” ERIC
- “Insects Don’t Bug Us,” Muhlenberg College
- “Insects: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Designing Effective Projects: Project-Based Units to Engage Students (Intel)
- “Let’s Get Physical!” Tulare County History
- “Life Underground,” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
- “Living Books for Biology,” Green Apples Blush
- “Nature Study in Your Own Backyard,” HarmonyArtMom
- “Nature Study,” Dottie’s Homeschool Universe
- “New Landforms Work and a Fun Introduction to Biomes,” Our Montessori Homeschool
- “One Small Square,” Diack Ecology.org
- “One Small Square: Backyard,” Dr. Judy Science Solutions
- “One Small Square: Outdoor Hour Challenge #9,” Harvest Moon By Hand
- “One Small Square: Take Two,” Blue House Academy
- “One Square Meter,” America’s Rain Forests
- “Our Curriculum for 2012-13 (*Not* Back-to-School Blog Hop),” Boasting in My Weakness
- “Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us Anything!” Upstart Books
- “Our Nature Study,” Discover Their Gifts
- “Science Fact and Fun: Making Sense of It [Teacher’s Guide],” Discovery Education
- “Social Studies Curriculum, Grade 2,” Flemington-Raritan Regional School District (NJ)
- “Soil Microhabitats Field Study,” Muhlenberg College
- “Spreading the Feast: School Plans for 2010-11,” Amongst Lovely Things
- “The Clear-Your Shelves Curriculum Plan for Eliza for 3rd Grade,” Confessions of an Erratic Homeschooler
- “The Outdoor Classroom, School Ground Greening Newsletter, 2007/2008,” Toyota Evergreen
- “’The Soil Around Us’ Project,” YouthLearn
- “Underground Adventure,” The Field Museum
- “Unit 3: Composting,” CalRecycle
- “Wild Links,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- “Wild TV,” PBS.org
- “Wildlife Garden,” Exploring Iowa’s Natural Resources
- “Winter Insects in One Small Square,” Hodgepodge
- “Winter Nature Study for Families,” HarmonyArtMom
- “Worms,” CreativeCurriculum.net
- “Your Backyard Monarch Companion e-Study Guide,” Curriculum Choice
Some links did not specifically include a lesson plan, but had other interesting and important information that might be helpful to a classroom or homeschool teacher, such as schedules for using the book, the role of nature study in a balanced curriculum, lists of materials to include in a comprehensive outdoor study program, and general information on nature study. Think of these as a “shopping list” for a teacher intent on infusing science into classroom practice.
- “A Balanced Whole in a Charlotte Mason Education,” Wildflowers and Marbles
- “Activities for Preschooler-K (Ages 3-5),”Acorn Naturalists
- “Green Spring Gardens Teacher’s Resource List,” Fairfax County, Virginia
- “Pre-K Teaching Times,” Bright from the Start
- “Publications and Websites,” Milton Outdoor Classrooms
- “Resources for Educators and Parents in the Hay Creek Watershed and Hopewell Big Woods Area,” Hay Creek Watershed Association
- “Summer Reading, Summer Camping, Summer Science,” NSTA Blog
- Dig In! Hands On Soil Investigations (Glossary), National Science Teachers Association
For More Information…
All these sites, and others, can be found on my Pinterest board, One Small Square. New sites will be added as I find them.
Will You Help Me?
Will you help me out? Click Here to take a brief survey on your experience on this page (You will NOT be directed to an advertiser! This is for my research, only!).
Posted in Life Sciences, LS 2: Ecosystems: Interactions, energy, and dynamics, LS 4: Biological Evolution: Unity and diversity, Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
Tagged backyard, biomes, center-based learning, charlotte mason, Creative Curriculum, ecology, elementary science, homeschool, inquiry, investigations, lesson plans, meter square, nature study, One Small Square, quadrat studies
Essential Questions —
- What is the relationship between color and bird feeding behavior?
- How do you quantify something that you can’t measure yourself?
Enduring Understandings —
- Treatment effects can be measured using both direct and indirect means.
Focus for This Task:
- Focus Strategy: Indirect Measurement
- Targeted Skill: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
- Key Concepts: Cause and Effect
- Core Ideas: Biological Evolution
The Learning Task:
Designing the Investigation:
- Problem Statement: Does the color of a bird feeder affect bird feeding behavior?
- Null Hypothesis: The color of the bird feeder has no effect on bird feeding behavior.
- Alternative Hypothesis: The color of the bird feeder does affect bird feeding behavior.
Do you think that the birds will eat from one color feeder more than the other? Why or why not? Which color, if either, do you think will attract birds the most? How will you know?
- two identical pie pans
- construction paper (one sheet of green, one sheet of red) [You can use more than two colors with older students; make sure one of them is red.]
- mixed bird seed (or seed of your choice)
- 1-cup measuring cup
- Trace the bottom of the pie pan onto each sheet of construction paper; cut out the two construction paper circles.
- Place one circle inside the bottom of each pie pan.
- Measure one cup of mixed bird seed into each pie pan, making sure to push the seeds to one side to expose the color at the bottom of the pie pan.
- Place the pie pans on the ground in a place where birds frequently come to visit and feed.
- After 2 days, bring the pie pans inside. Measure the seed in each pan using a measuring cup.
See the photo gallery, below, for questions to ask while conducting this investigation.
Why is it important that the feeders be exactly like, except for color? In this experiment, which is the independent variable? Which is the dependent variable?
Would the experiment be different if you used a different kind of food, such as suet or fruit? Why or why not?
Why is it important to put the same type and amount of food in each feeding station? Would the experiment be different if you used a hanging feeder instead of a ground/platform feeder? Why or why not?
How will you know that the birds were attracted to one color over the other? How can you directly measure this? How could you indirectly measure this? Which way is better? Why?
Would your results be different if you used a different kind of bird feeder? Why or why not?
Would you get different results if you used a different kind of food? What if you colored the food, instead of the feeder?
- Record your results using a data table.
How would you set up your data table? What would be the column headers? What would be the row labels? What data would you put in the body of the table? How might you order the data? Why?
- dependent, independent variable
- direct, indirect measurement
- scientific method
- Did you use direct measurement or indirect measurement to determine the effects of color on bird feeding behavior? Explain.
- What would be other direct ways of measuring your treatment effect? What would be other indirect methods?
- What other factors might have influenced the results of your experiment? How could you change the experiment to eliminate these factors?
- Could you change your procedure to more accurately measure your treament affect? How?
Students who are very young are learning that objects have properties, some which can be observed directly, using their senses, others which can be determined using simple tools and tests. The focus for them is on honing their observational skills, and exploring measurement.
When conducting this experiment with little ones, ask them questions, like the ones below.
- Which color do you think will attract more birds? Why?
- What did you notice about the birds feeding?
- Which feeder has more seed? How can we figure it out?
- Why do we measure things?
- If you were a bird, which feeder would you go to? Why?
- What do you think would happen if we changed the color of the feeders? Why?
Common Core State Standards Connections:
As students enter the primary grades, they are learning that all living things have basic needs, in order to survive. They begin to notice and can explain the connection between the behaviors of living things and their need for food and water. They are becoming more adept at the use of tools to investigate their world, and are learning to select the appropriate measurement tool for a given situation.
Simple experiments give primary grade students an opportunity to design and carry out fair tests to to investigate their world, and to practice recording their observations in various ways. As they work , ask students questions like the ones below:
- Which color attracted birds more? Why might this be?
- How could you figure out which feeder the birds preferred? What measurement tool would you need? Is there another way you could measure this?
- If you wanted to find out if different colors attracted different birds, how would you change this experiment? Work with a partner to design this new experiment.
- Use pictures, words and numbers to show the results of your experiment.
Common Core State Standards Connections:
Children who are moving through the elementary grades are exploring the relationships between and interdependence of living and non-living things in the environment. They are beginning to understand that some behaviors of living things make them better adapted for their living conditions — that there is an underlying purpose behind the way that plants and animals respond to their environment. They are also moving beyond concrete to representational, and are using symbols and visuals to show ideas.
If this investigation is conducted with elementary grade students, ask them questions like the ones, below:
- If this were a different environment (city, desert, beach), would you expect different results? Why or why not?
- What other factors (environment, human activities, etc.) might have influenced the results of this experiment? Explain.
- Draw a diagram showing the way you set up your experiment. Include a caption, and clearly label important parts of the feeding station.
- Re-design this experiment, including a direct method of measuring the effects of color on bird feeding behaviors, in place of the method in this activity.
Common Core State Standards Connections:
Students in the middle grades are honing their skills as scientists, and learning to evaluate the validity of experimental methods and claims. Their experiments should focus on evaluating and selecting from among various experimental methods. They can be expected to produce more sophisticated arguments and presentations, based on data and resources.
When conducting this experiment with older elementary students, consider the following adaptations:
- Measure the effects of color on bird feeding behaviors using the following measurement methods: weight of seeds before and after feeding period; number of feeding visits per feeder, during feeding period; average length of feeding visit per bird, during feeding time.
- Which measurement method most accurately measured the effect of color on bird feeding behavior? Support your claim using results from your experiment.
- Find an article online that discusses color and bird feeding. Summarize your findings in your report.
Common Core State Standards Connections:
- A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Cross-Cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, National Research Council, 2011
- “Explore Science with BirdSleuth, The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology” [accessed July 7, 2012]
- “All About Birds BirdSleuth 2009-3 Article: Young Students” [accessed July 7, 2012]
- “Do Birds Care What Color Their Food Is?” Science Bob’s Blog, January 27, 2010
- “Extending Our Senses: Indirect Measurement,” Arbor Scientific, September 1, 2003
- Big Backyard Magazine (ages 3-7) and Ranger Rick Magazine
Posted in Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation, LS 4: Biological Evolution: Unity and diversity, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Showing Cause-and-Effect Relationship
Tagged 1.MD.4, 2.MD.10, 3.MD.3, 4.MD.2, 5.MD.3, 6.SP.5, adaptation, advantage, birds, cause and effect, color, dependent variable, direct measurement, experimental design, feeding behaviors, independent variable, indirect measurement, investigations, K.MD.2, SL.1.5, SL.2.5, SL.3.4, SL.5.4, SL.6.2, SL.K.6, W.1.3, W.2.2, W.3.2, W.4.2, W.5.2, W.6.2, W.K.2