Birds’ feathers, beaks, feet are neat!

Shelburne Community School students studied birds last month in Hands on Nature, a program of the Four Winds Nature Institute.

Shelburne Community School students studied birds last month in Hands on Nature, a program of the Four Winds Nature Institute.

By Caitlin Waddick, Ph.D., MCRP in cooperation with the Four Winds Nature Institute


Birds are remarkable creatures. Some are adapted to fly great distances; others are adapted to dive in the ocean, hunt from the air, or to stay warm in extremely cold weather. The greatest challenge for all birds, however, is to find enough food to generate the energy needed to meet all of life’s demands. Specially designed beaks, feet, legs, eyes, and wings help them to confront this challenge.

Feathers, unique to bird’s, contribute to a birds’ ability to fly, and they keep them warm. They also carry the colors and patterns that are distinctive for each species.

A bird’s beak or bill is a distinct characteristic that varies with each bird species. Bird beaks are designed for obtaining particular kinds of food in specific ways.

Birds’ feet, wings, tails, legs, and eyes are all adapted for particular lifestyles, allowing them to feed, hunt, avoid predators, and nest in their respective habitats. Each kind of bird is uniquely adapted to survive in the environment in which it lives.

In the classroom

Children in K-3 at Shelburne Community School explored the physical adaptations of birds this month in Hands-On Nature (HON), a program of the Four Winds Nature Institute. In the Puppet Show, young Cappy chickadee met a duck who used her beak to eat algae, not yummy sunflower seeds. The duck wanted to introduce Cappy to Kenny Kestrel, but Cappy protested, knowing already that Kenny uses his sharp claws and keen eyes to hunt and eat little birds like her in the winter.

In one hands-on activity, the children became mama and papa birds feeding their young. Using various kitchen tools as “beaks,” the parent-birds obtained various foods (i.e. gummy worms buried in rolled oats-as-if-dirt) and fed them to their babies (cups decorated as open-mouthed baby birds). Chopsticks, intended to simulate the long beaks of hummingbirds, were the only ones that could reach the nectar in the narrow-necked vases, which were intended to simulate flowers with nectar. In another activity, children handled and compared various types of feathers—downy, flight, and contour, as well as feet, one of which had deadly claws like Kenny Kestrel’s claws. Some children drew and labeled the parts of a flight feather. They were fascinated by the tiny barbules that link the parts of the feather together, and we talked about how birds preen their feathers to keep them clean and able to fly, repel water, and retain body heat. We also passed around actual bird feet!

What kind of bird are you? A game for kids

Try to guess the identity of these birds: (1) This bird paddles around in the water with its feet and catches fish in its beak. (2) This type of bird flies after food, change directions quickly, and catches flying insects in the air with its beak. (3) This bird hammers holes in trees with its beak and uses its stiff tail to help support itself on tree trunks. (4) You can spot a mouse a half-mile away and spend a lot of time soaring in the sky. (5) This bird eats bugs under bark and climbs up and down trees with its feet. (6) Characteristics of this bird are …rack seeds with your beak and  attract a mate with your beautiful tail. (7) You sip nectar from flowers with your beak and  have brilliant feathers so other birds can see you. (8) You catch frogs with your beak and hunt while wading in deep water. (9) You can see very well in the dark and  catch live mice with your feet.

Outside: watch the birds

The best way to learn a bird’s identity is to first get to know its unique adaptations. Watching bird antics will give the clues needed to get to know feathered locals on a first name basis.

Calling birds by making a rhythmic “pssh” sound or by “kissing” the back or palm of your hand will bring birds closer so that you can get a better look at them and watch what they are doing.  Setting up and watching a feeder is also a great way to get acquainted.

At first it will be hard to see and remember everything before a bird flits away. You might want to start a notebook with words and drawings to help you remember what the bird ate, its size, beak shape, wing and body shape, color patterns, and where you saw it. Use these clues to discover the bird’s identity in a book or from an expert.

Bird facts

I would like to leave you with a few amazing facts about birds’ bodies. Songbirds have from 3,000 to 5,000 feathers, yet waterfowl can have up to 25,000. A woodpecker’s tongue is very long, and wraps around the back of the skull, anchored at the base of the bill.  Finally, in winter, ruffed grouse grow a fringe of scales along each of their toes to increase the surface area of the feet. Their feet act like snowshoes and help them walk in deep snow.  Birds’ bodies and feet sure are neat!


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