A Teacher's Guide to: Project FeederWatch
Next to television, video games and the Internet, birdwatching and bird feeding are the fastest growing popular recreational pastimes in North America.
Why? Because feeder birds are easy to watch, easy to identify (even for the beginner!), and they are incredibly beautiful and fascinating creatures. Even the lowly starling and sparrow are breathtaking ? especially to young people.
If we can harness this fascination with things that are wild, then we can begin to teach children about conservation and scientific research. They will have an opportunity to enhance their enjoyment of nature, and hone their skills as naturalists so that they will be better able to offer their skills later in life as professional biologists, geographers, environmentally-aware engineers, and more.
Project FeederWatch provides a natural way to teach children about the conservation of birds and their habitats and can lend variety to every-day classroom activities (see below for some ideas). Children will learn that "conservation" is an ongoing, cooperative responsibility and that science can be fun as well as fascinating!
You and your students are invited to join thousands of other FeederWatchers across the continent, who watch birds for science ? and for fun. This guide tells you how you can use Project FeederWatch with students of all ages and teach a variety of subjects at the bird feeder.
You can use Project FeederWatch to educate students about bird conservation, biology and the importance of conserving habitat, while contributing to a major international research project. It is our hope that participation in a long-term scientific research project will foster your students' interest in nature and conservation and help them develop basic field and research skills they may not otherwise have the opportunity to learn in a classroom setting.
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What is Project FeederWatch?
Project FeederWatch is an ongoing scientific research project that involves thousands of North Americans. Each winter, participants collect and submit data on the numbers of each species of bird using their feeders. By analyzing these data, scientists can monitor the winter distribution and population status of various bird species. These data are particularly useful for monitoring populations of northern nesting species that are not easily monitored by other methods during the breeding season. FeederWatch scientists also study the factors that cause variation in numbers and distribution of winter birds, such as habitat, weather and foods offered at feeders. Project FeederWatch is a cooperative project of Bird Studies Canada, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Canadian Nature Federation and the National Audubon Society.
How does Project FeederWatch Work?
Counts of feeder birds are made on two consecutive days weekly from November through March (on line data entry is preferred, but paper dataforms can be utilized if entries are made in two-week intervals). Sightings from a single day are also acceptable. You may choose any two consecutive "count days", set in advance, preferably at the beginning of the season. FeederWatchers record the maximum number of each species of bird they see using their feeder within this two-day period.
Making Project FeederWatch Work for Your Class
As a teacher responsible for a class or after-school interest group, you will be responsible for tailoring the Project FeederWatch observation periods to suit your group's schedule. You can make your observations before, during, or after the school day, depending on daylight hours. On your count day, pairs of students can take turns observing feeders; groups of students can even take notes while eating lunch. The exact amount of time put into making FeederWatch observations is not crucial; you can vary your counting system to fit your needs.
Simply keep two things in mind: (1) the more time you can give to observations, the better you will be able to represent the numbers of species using your feeder, and (2) try to devote approximately the same amount of time observing feeder activity during each two-day observation period each week.
Accurate Observations are Important
We do ask teachers, especially those working with young children, to be responsible for monitoring bird feeder observations and supervising on line data entry (or filling in dataforms if paper is being used). FeederWatch data are very important. Our ongoing research depends on the reliable information participants send back to us. Often, students record species and counts on tally sheets - then teachers fill in the FeederWatch on line data forms.
Detailed Project FeederWatch instructions, a FeederWatcher's Handbook, and a colourful poster and calendar will be mailed to all those who register for Project FeederWatch. The instructions can also be found on our web page, so you can start your counting while you wait for the materials! Once you receive your package with your registration number, you will be able to enter your counts and registration information directly on the web page (please allow a week or two for your user ID to be registered with the central computer).
All FeederWatchers receive Bird Studies Canada's quarterly magazine, which includes an annual report of Project FeederWatch results in Canada.
Participants are asked to become members of BSC as the costs for the program are covered by membership fees. These are $25 annually ($35 after 1 December). This helps to cover the cost of developing and sending these materials, as well as analyzing the data. We hope you will agree that this is a small price to pay for enriching the education of children.
What you'll need to take part in Project FeederWatch
Bird feeder (at least one). Bird feeders can be purchased or made by students. There is no "standard" Project FeederWatch feeder. Several books describe ways to turn items like 2-litre plastic soda bottles into bird feeders. Hold a contest in your class for the best home-made bird feeder. Let your imagination run wild!
Seeds. Try a bag of mixed commercial bird seed first. Notice which species prefer which seeds and which seeds disappear fastest. Experiment!
Good viewing location. Be sure to locate your feeder in an area where you can easily observe it. If you can include trees and shrubs in the area, all the better. These provide good roosting sites and cover for the birds. You can plant shrubs or even recycle old Christmas trees for the winter.
Identification guides. Learning to identify birds can be a lifetime process. However, most birds using feeders are pretty easy to identify. Field guides of birds in your region will be helpful; your class could make a trip to the library for some of these books. Be sure to read field guide introductions that explain range maps for species, notes about field marks, behaviour, seasonal plumage, and so on. And don't forget to consult your FeederWatch poster to help you identify the more common feeder species!
Tally sheets for recording feeder observations. An example of a tally sheet is on Bird Studies Canada's Project FeederWatch web site. Feel free to print and copy this. You and your students can also design your own tally sheet, as long as you collect the same information we ask for on the Project FeederWatch tally sheet.
Extra items. The following are non-essential, but will prove useful too.
Water. Birds need water to drink. They also bathe in it to remove dirt and pests from their feathers. Water can attract all sorts of bird species that don't usually visit feeders. An old garbage can lid or shallow pan makes a good bird bath. Clean and replenish it often. Below-freezing temperatures obviously pose problems. Some bird-bath heating devices work well, but they can be expensive.
Suet. Suet, an animal fat, is an attractive source of protein for many insect-eating birds such as chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. Offer it only during cool or cold weather though, because it can go rancid in warm temperatures. While you can purchase special suet feeders, you can also simply tie or wire suet to trees. Sometimes grocery-store meat departments will provide suet for free. Try mixing sand, seeds and raisins in with the suet, or make another trip to the library for "bird food" recipe books!
Binoculars. These are great for seeing field marks on birds that may be hard to identify from a distance. Beginning bird watchers sometimes find binoculars difficult to handle. If you are working with young children, you might have them practice with imitation binoculars first. You can make some with cardboard tubes from toilet tissue. When you want to try out the real thing, call local bird clubs. Often, bird watchers have old binoculars they are more than willing to share with others.
Clipboard. Have these ready for students to record their observations on your tally sheets.
Project FeederWatch bulletin board with at least some of the following items:
· calendar with Project FeederWatch "count days" clearly marked
· list of species seen at your feeder site
· drawings or photos of your feeder birds
· maps of bird species' migration routes, breeding and wintering ranges
· bird poetry, bird stories
· "bird-of-the-week" life history
· feeding tips, seed types
· pictures of different types of bird beaks, feet, etc.
Enriching your curriculum with Project FeederWatch and Related Bird-watching Activities
Which birds act like bullies at the bird feeder? Which birds flock or feed alone? Do some birds swipe seeds and fly away with them, while others crunch them on site? You can pursue an array of natural mysteries while participating in Project FeederWatch.
Informative books containing activity ideas and background information on bird biology (life history, ecology, reproduction, migration, foraging, physiology etc.) necessary for teachers to initiate classroom studies of birds are listed in the Resources section below.
The following suggestions have been contributed by teachers across the continent. Please send us an email or write to us with ways you have included bird-related activities in your curriculum.
· Research the life cycle and behaviour of an individual species you observe at your feeding site. What are its usual feeding habits? Birds spend most of the daylight hours in the winter looking for food or foraging; where does this species find its food when not at your feeder?
· Take an inventory of other animals that use your bird feeder. How many squirrels are in your school yard? Do birds relinquish the feeder to squirrels or do they stand their ground? Why?
· During a weather lesson, determine if certain weather factors influence the number of birds at your feeder and their rate of food consumption. Look separately at wind, rain, snow, temperature, and barometric pressure. Investigate why one factor might make a difference to the birds and why another one might not.
· Research bird metabolism. Explain that the hearts of some chickadees and other small birds beat around 1000 times every minute. Compare the number of heartbeats an average person has in one minute. Brainstorm about why birds' hearts need to beat so rapidly and how that may influence their food intake. Research a bird's average body temperature. It is higher than our own familiar 37 degrees Celsius!
· Weigh bird seed before and after each Project FeederWatch count (or design your own observation period) and determine how much seed was eaten. After several timed counts, calculate the average consumption rate. Test and then predict how often your feeders need to be refilled. What variables (weather, time of day, different seed, etc.) confound these predictions?
· Hang two or more feeders at different heights. Compare bird preferences for feeders hung at the varying heights. Why might the height of a feeder make a difference? Observe which birds eat their food from the ground. Pay special attention to bird feet. Can you see how some feet might be adapted to trees and others to the ground?
· Measure and record the distances birds travel from the cover of trees, shrubs, or other hiding spots to your feeder site. Then, place artificial habitat such as tree branches nearby. Notice any differences this might create. Draw maps of your school to scale. Highlight good bird habitat. Discuss human impact on bird habitat. What effect can habitat removal have on birds?
Writing and Literature:
· For a descriptive writing lesson, practice writing clear, detailed observations of the birds at your feeder site. Even if you don't yet know the bird's name or habits, describe what you see. Start a journal. In the journal include the date of your observation, location, weather, species' name if you know it, and an overview of the bird's appearance and behaviour. Good note-taking is an important part of all research.
· Write bird poetry. The poems can be simple rhymes, limericks, haiku or other forms.
· Write short stories. Have students write about a selected species of bird or individual bird at your feeder. Use factual observations in your fictional accounts. Fill your classroom or nature centre bookshelves with books related to birds ? or take a trip to the library.
Geography and History:
· Research how the number and occurrence of bird species vary according to latitude and altitude in North America. Look at bird species around the world. You'll have plenty of birds to study. Some estimates list about 10,000 species of birds worldwide; only about 900 birds have occurred in North America.
· Research bird migration routes. Label a map to show where some species you have observed might go in summer to breed. Many winter birds are year-round residents. Create a local map that depicts resident birds' seasonal habitats.
· Research famous bird biologists, bird artists, and researchers, such as John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Margaret Morse Nice, Roger Tory Peterson, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Alexander Wilson. Write and present a skit using them as main characters. After the skit, have students interview the characters for historical information related to bird biology and conservation.
· Why don't we find Passenger Pigeons at our bird feeders? Why do birds fly away from humans?
Art and Music:
· Use binoculars to assist you in making a detailed bird drawing. Include in the drawing field marks you can only see up close, such as the curve of a bird's bill, its eye ring, crown, cheek or ear patch. Pay close attention to further details. Make papier-mache bird masks. Paint them and use these masks while enacting student-written creative stories that depict bird behaviours you've observed.
· Research music that has been influenced by bird song. Consider classical as well as modern-day music. Have students think of popular song titles that use bird names or references.
· Listen to recordings of actual bird song. Though it is difficult at first, start learning to identify birds by their song. A robin's song is a good one to learn first. Imitate bird song by whistling or imitating sounds on musical instruments. At feeders in winter, many birds don't sing. You might hear calls or chip notes. Listen carefully to these. Take a tape recorder (one with an extension microphone works best) and record the sounds birds make at your own feeder site. Can you recognize species from these calls?
· Observe and investigate bird flight. The rates of wingbeats differ according to species. For example, wingbeats of chickadees have been recorded at 27 beats per second, a starling at 4.3 beats per second and an American Goldfinch at 4.9 beats per second. Hawks that might visit feeders like the American Kestrel, have slower rates. Consider other familiar birds like swans. Have students flap their arms at different rates to imitate different species. This takes energy! What do birds use for fuel?
· Try making your own bird food. Combine different seeds and see which mixtures get eaten up the fastest. What happens if you mix bird seed in with some suet? Why is bread a poor food for birds?
· Take photographs of birds at your feeder. Photographs can help point out individual differences or markings among the same species. Recognizing individual birds can be a boost to your bird studies and it makes observing them even more fun!
· Take a look at the money we use every day. What birds are on the "Loonie" coin and each of our paper bills? Which of these birds occur in your area? In what kind of habitat can they be found? What do they eat? Do they all migrate? How many young do they have and where do they nest? Does the male look any different from the female? Have groups of students research a bird of their choice and present their findings to the class.
· Hands-on activities. These are fun to do and instructive for all ages. Construct bird wings (note differences among species), beaks (note variations of beaks adapted to different foods), feet (again, a wide variety adapted to varying habitats), using an assortment of materials ? painted brown wrapping paper for wings, for example, construction paper for beaks, pipe cleaners and paper for feet (use plastic wrapping for webbing). Study bird beaks. Look in a tool box for common tools that might act like beaks. Do pliers work like finch and cardinal beaks? Gather other beak-like materials. A hummingbird beak is like a straw, suited for sipping nectar; pigeons drink water in an unusual way, also using their beaks like a straw.
There are many books available on bird biology, conservation, breeding and wintering habitat, preferred foods, fun and economical ways to create your own bird feeders and so on. A selection of titles is printed below. Your library will have many more, and may even have audio tapes of bird calls.
Comstock, Anna Botsford. 1967. Handbook of Nature-Study for Teachers and Parents. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Dennis, John V. and Matthew Kalmenoff (Illustrator). 1994. A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding. Knopf. Revised Edition.
Dunn, E. H. and D. L. Tessaglia-Hymes. 1999. Birds at Your Feeder: A Guide to Feeding Habits, Behavior, Distribution, and Abundance. New York: W.W. Norton.
Ehrlich, Paul, David Dobkin and Darryl Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Fireside Book. ? Indispensable as a reference book for teachers, secondary school students and advanced readers.
Forsyth, Adrian and Laurel Aziz. 1990. Exploring the World of Birds: An Equinox Guide to Avian Life. D.W. Friesen and Sons Ltd., Altona Manitoba for Camden House Publishing. ? An excellent overview of bird biology for teachers and older students (grades 5 to 8 and beyond).
Hickman, Pamela M. 1988. Birdwise. Toronto: Kids Can Press Ltd. ? Text, illustrations and activity ideas are artfully combined. Suitable for use as an teacher's guide or as a reference/activity text for primary to intermediate level students.
Kress, Stephen W. 1991. BirdLife: A Guide to the Behavior and Biology of Birds. New York: Golden Press.
Barker, Margaret A. and Jack Griggs. 2000. The FeederWatcher's Guide to Bird Feeding. New York: Harper Resource.
Cosgrove, Irene. 1976. My Recipes are for the Birds. Garden City NY: Doubleday & Company.
Grubb, Thomas. 1986. Beyond Birding: Field Projects for Inquisitive Birders. Pacific Grove California: The Boxwood Press.
Hunken, Jorie. 1992. Birdwatching for All Ages: Activities for Children and Adults. Chester Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press.
Kress, Stephen W. 1995. National Audubon Society's Bird Garden: A Comprehensive Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard Throughout the Year. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishers.
Stokes, Donald and Lillian. 1987. The Bird Feeder Book. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Field Identification Guides:
Dunn, John L. 1999. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society. Third edition.
Godfrey, W. Earl. 1986. The Birds of Canada, revised edition. National Museum of Natural Sciences, Ottawa.
Peterson, Roger Tory. 1999. A Field Guide to the Birds: A Completely new Guide to All the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Robbins, Chandler, Bertel Bruun and Herbert Zim. 1966. A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America. New York: Golden Press.
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Atwood, Margaret. 1990. For the Birds. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.
Cole, Joanna. 1982. A Bird's Body. New York: William Morrow and Co.
Taylor, Kim. 1992. Owl (See How they Grow). Richmond Hill Ontario: Scholastic Canada Limited.
Yolen, Jane. 1987. Owl Moon. New York: Philomel Books.
Many wonderful works of fiction involve birds. Check your local library and local bookstore for classics and current titles involving birds.