Bird experiments for six-year-olds?
April 20, 2016 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me come up with some bird-related experiments or projects for six-year-olds that teach a simple version of the scientific method?

This is a follow up to my most recent question, for which your replies were enormously helpful. We've decided that May will be our bird unit, with one or two expeditions per week to look at birds, record bird songs, etc. We're planning to go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden bird walks and/or the Audubon Society family Sundays. We'd also like to plan some experiments or projects that teach a beginning version of the scientific method.

Supplies we have already: The book that has recordings of bird calls. The Backyard Bird Book. A suet feeder that has attracted no birds. A bird house with a clear back, intended to tempt birds to build a nest inside, which has attracted no birds. Binoculars.

Ideas we have already: Coloring sheets of birds in which the kids can note via crayoning what they observe. Notebooks in which they can use their (very limited) note-taking skills to become junior listers. And using simple deductive reasoning to identify birds we see.

We are in Brooklyn, NY. One of us has a terrace and one of us has no outdoor space. Our nearest park is a small pocket park; Brooklyn Bridge Park and Prospect Park are a few stops away.

I saw this bird beak experiment and bird-bone experiment, which might be okay, but for some reason I don't think they're going to hold our kids' attention or lead them to draw the correct conclusions.

Any ideas?
posted by pipti to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Owl pellets? Paper airplanes or kites, for learning about flight?

You said in the previous question that your son is interested in dinosaurs... any chance you can get a bird skeleton/model skeleton/picture of skeleton and compare it to the same from a dinosaur?
posted by mskyle at 6:24 AM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

One potential interesting idea is to see if you can scare pigeons by playing various calls of raptors. It might not give a result, but I am sure you can find recordings of raptor calls online and also probably have access to a speaker system to play it. Try at least 5 different calls at 3 different volume levels and record your observations.
posted by koolkat at 6:32 AM on April 20, 2016

Maybe an investigation into why your feeders are not attracting birds?
posted by archimago at 6:38 AM on April 20, 2016

If you need an experiment to go with the owl pellets (which you can order online) you could have them hypothesize about what an owl might eat, then confirm by dissecting the pellet.

The Cornell ornithology lab has some interesting free resources here. Also here.

Not an experiment but for fun several of the bridges and towers in NYC have peregrine falcon nesting boxes and webcams you can watch them on (here is one place to start, scroll to bottom for links).
posted by Wretch729 at 7:06 AM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

A suet feeder that has attracted no birds.

I think "Do birds in this area want to eat suet, or would they like a different kind of bird food?" and "Does the shape/size/placement of the feeder affect how many birds want to eat from it?" are questions you can tackle with a six-year-old. (You don't even have to run out and buy a ton of new bird feeders or anything, you could try making them in different shapes and sizes from stuff around the house.)
posted by 23skidoo at 7:16 AM on April 20, 2016

A simple version of the scientific method could be:

Parent: Asks question that can have a simple answer. E.g. How many types of birds do you think we will see today?
Child: Makes a hypothesis, and maybe says why they think so.
Parent: Asks how can we find out?
Child: Makes some suggestions.
Parent: Helps to refine the process (makes sure the experiment/test actually does answer the question, checks for materials and safety concerns etc.)
Both: Engage in the experiment/test
Both: Look at results
Parent: Asks child if the results match the guess that the child made
Child: compares results and guess*
Both: Decide if there is a desire to redo experiment or expand on the idea

* Definitely EMPHASIZE that a guess that turns out to be "wrong" is just as valuable and informative as a "right" guess. And that good scientists (old and young!) use both types of
results to learn. The feeling that you should only guess if you can guess "right" can be sadly common in schools.
posted by eisforcool at 7:23 AM on April 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some possible bird questions:

How many different birds live in our neighbourhood?
Do different birds make different sounds?
Does one kind of bird make different sounds?
(Ie warning sounds vs greetings)
How is a bird's body different than a humans? (Look at feet, nose, skin, wings etc...)
(Also room here to explore feathers and weight)
How does a bird's wings move when it flies? (Take lots of pictures where there are lots of birds!)
Do different birds have different feet?
(Try some flippers on your feet to explore swimming birds)
What food does a bird like best?
(Make a bird feeder with peanut butter and pine cones, another with honey or something)
Do birds prefer to eat near trees or near houses?
Does the weather affect the birds? (Tougher)
Do birds really eat worms?
Do different birds make different sized eggs?
(If you eat eggs you can explore chickens being birds too as an angle)
posted by eisforcool at 7:39 AM on April 20, 2016

I have done an experiment with first graders where you make a prediction of what species of birds you might find in the park (botanical garden in your case) based on some simple research into what species are common in your state. Then, you set up a clipboard with a data table where the kids can count (using hashmarks) the birds they see when you go on your visit. Always add some extra lines to the data table that are blank for species you weren't expecting to see.

Compare your results to your prediction, and then talk about the reasons why your prediction may have differed from your results. I agree with eisforcool that the key is to help them realize that even if your hypothesis is not supported by the data, it's still a valuable experiment.
posted by amelliferae at 7:40 AM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you near the parrots then? You could do some research about where these parrots come from originally, and then try to discover through observation how they are able to thrive in Brooklyn. What are they eating? Where are they living? How does it compare to their "native" habitat in South America?

You might also look into other questions about behavior that would require sustained observations of particular birds and their behavior (parrots or others) -- do birds make friends? why do some birds stay in a flock while others are more solitary?
posted by cubby at 7:47 AM on April 20, 2016

You could do a real experiment where you compare different types of bird food and see what birds come to visit and how popular they are. If somebody can do video of the bird feeders for 12 hours to get an actual count of the visiting birds that would be optimal because then you don't have to watch the bird feeders. This would allow you to 1) hypothesize about which one is going to be more popular, 2) look at the species that come to visit--what do their beaks look like? What kinds of food do they eat? Do other animals (squirrels?) come to eat?

If you are already doing graphs you could do a bar graph or a pie chart to display your results.

An alternative would be to use the SAME kind of bird food and try it in different delivery methods--spread out on a tray, in a bird feeder, etc.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:58 AM on April 20, 2016

Homemade bird feeders are fun and easy (random top link). You could make two exactly the same way but with different types of nuts or seeds, and hypothesize which might be preferred by your neighborhood birds. That could lead into insights on local species, beak shapes, habitat, etc.

Follow-up questions could include: *Which* birds prefer nuts over seeds? *Why* do the birds prefer nuts over seeds? Why didn't any hummingbirds or ducks come by? Where might you look for those types of birds? What would you put in a duck-feeder? Where do birds find their favorite foods in nature, without feeders?
posted by scrubjay at 8:01 AM on April 20, 2016

Please avoid using calls in outdoor areas; it's spring, and birds are setting up for nesting or already doing so. Defending territories against actual other birds is already pretty stressful, so please don't make them do so against imaginary ones.
posted by rtha at 8:03 AM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Home Science Adventures, which my kids and I have used for homeschooling and really enjoyed, has a unit called Discovering Birds. I think it might not be as helpful on the scientific method front as you want, but it has a lot of good activities and my kids really enjoyed them.

Not specifically focused on birds, the TOPS Science unit on Animal Survival may overlap with what you're interested in. My kids and I have loved TOPS Science though we haven't done this particular unit. TOPS specifically teaches various elements of doing actual science, including data-keeping, predicting, formulating hypotheses. Kids are invited to perform experiments to confirm, or discover, principles. The Animal Survival unit is aimed at 3rd to 8th graders; my kids and I have found that we've been able to enjoy TOPS units as a group of various ages. However, there are other units aimed at younger kids that are not bird-related but that use other focuses to also teach the rudiments of the scientific method, which you might like for another project some time.

For a long time, we had a Birds of North America poster from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology posted near our window. One of my kids, from the age of 4 or so, enjoyed circling any birds on it that we saw at our feeders. You might enjoy browsing their website. They have bird cams, information on what foods birds like, ideas for attracting birds, and bird identification "courses." They have free lessons and activities aimed at both classroom teachers, which you might be able to adapt, and families. You might also explore their "Citizen Science" page. Project Feederwatch has ended for the year, but there are others, including a program called Celebrate Urban Birds.
posted by not that girl at 8:03 AM on April 20, 2016

How about coming up with a hypothesis about how bird activity might vary with time of day or weather? For example: Fewer birds will be out when it's raining or More birds will be out at 7:00 in the morning than at noon. Then find a place you can visit repeatedly where you can expect to see birds and visit it both when it's raining and when it isn't, or at different times of day, or whatever is necessary to test your hypothesis. You can talk about the idea of keeping everything the same except what you're testing. For instance, if you're testing how rain affects bird activity, but your rainy days visits happen at a completely different time of day from your sunny days visits, or you don't stay as long counting birds on rainy days, then there's more than one factor that could be affecting your results.
posted by Redstart at 8:12 AM on April 20, 2016

i guess this may be way too eek, but if you live somewhere vaguely in the countryside (oh, ok, or visit) you must come across dead birds from time to time. wouldn't it be awesome to extract the skeleton from one? i guess you have to boil things up. and i am sure there'd be internet instructions on how to do this if you googled.
posted by andrewcooke at 9:16 AM on April 20, 2016

What ratio of sugar:water attracts the most hummingbirds?
posted by ApathyGirl at 6:10 PM on April 20, 2016

Thanks everyone! We are going to try a bunch of these ideas, and I'll report back!
posted by pipti at 10:35 AM on April 26, 2016

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