Birds of a Feather Adapt Together

Investigating adaptation in bird beaks offers practice in scientific inquiry skills.

By Erin Bailey


enter image description hereA Bird came down the Walk –

He did not know I saw –

He bit an Angle Worm in halves

And ate the fellow, raw.

- From Emily Dickinson’s, “A Bird Came Down the Walk”

It has been said that humans are the most adaptable species on Earth. We can live in all climates, eat nearly anything, and use technology to help us do both. Therefore, it can be difficult for younger learners to recognize that most plants and animals also adapt, albeit more slowly. While this bird beak investigation is a classic and appears in many forms, its value can be raised by turning it into an inquiry-based lesson. All it needs is a few adaptations of its own.


The materials list is a bit lengthy, but can be pared down for younger learners. Each group of investigators will need the following:

  • Pliers
  • Eyedropper
  • Staple remover
  • Tweezers
  • Slotted spoon (or draining pasta scoop)
  • Pliers
  • Eyedropper, a staple remover, tweezers, and a slotted spoon or draining pasta scoop,

You (the teacher) will also need:

  • Pictures of several common birds
  • One pan of potting soil
  • Stopwatch
  • Data recording tables
  • Peanuts in the shell (seed eaters)
  • Five large marshmallows on a skewer (raptors)
  • Cooked spaghetti noodles (worm and bug eaters)
  • Plant material and goldfish crackers (ducks)
  • A tub filled with water, and a test tube of water (hummingbirds)

Because the test tube represents a flower and nectar, I tape a colorful collar around the opening of the tube; made of wrapping paper or card stock.


Make five stations with one food source each. Bury the spaghetti noodles in the soil. Then put the plant material and a few crackers in the tub of water. The goldfish crackers will get soggy and need to be replaced occasionally.

The Inquiry Method:

  • Observation: Ask children to study the pictures of the birds and write down at least three words to describe each bird’s beak.

  • Asking Questions: Encourage the class to pose questions about what they have observed. “Why do birds have different beaks?” “How did they get different shaped beaks?” Ultimately, the focus question should be, “How does the shape of a bird’s beak determine its diet?”

  • Making Predictions: Divide your class into five groups. Before beginning the investigation, each group should write down a prediction about the focus question.


Each group chooses a station and each student selects one of the five tools. Instruct individuals to gather as much food as possible in one minute using ONLY their chosen tool. To keep the station hands-free, have a volunteer hold the marshmallow skewer while the other birds pick at it. The nut shells should be cracked, but the seeds don’t have to be completely removed. Have participants keep their piles of food separate so the results for each tool can be recorded on the data sheet.

After each station, young scientists should count the number of food pieces their beak was able to gather and record it on their data sheet under the corresponding tool.

Evaluating Data and Communicating with Others

When all stations have been visited, each group should evaluate their data. Then have them look at the bird pictures again and decide which tool represents which beak. Finally, have them reflect on the investigation as it relates to the question and their prediction. Did they answer it? Was their prediction correct? Allow time for discussion of their findings. Then ask students what might happen if the raptor could no longer find marshmallows. They should use their data sheet to formulate their answer. Continue this exercise for other birds. As an extension, encourage individuals to find the diet information for each bird and see if it corresponds to their results.

For more science lessons, visit Lesson Planet:

Engaging Young Scientists with Inquiry: Part One, Fitting In-Animals' Adaptations to Their Environment, Classifying Conundrum