Describing birds

Author: Andrew Rush

Overview: This lesson introduces students to the study of birds, challenges them to carefully observe and describe bird specimens, and demonstrates the importance to scientists of taking good field notes.

Lesson Concepts:

  • Scientists record drawings and information in field notes that allow them to share and use important information.

  • All birds share certain features, some unique to birds, some shared with other types of organisms.

  • Birds vary in color, size, and other features, and are classified based on their features.


  • Investigation & Experimentation Standard 6a: Classify objects in accordance with appropriate criteria.

  • Investigation & Experimentation Standard 6f: Select appropriate tools and make quantitative observations.

  • Reading Comprehension, Structural Features of Informational Materials - 2.1: Understand how text features (e.g., format, graphics, sequence, diagrams, charts, maps) make information accessible and usable.

Grade span: 5


  • Various study skins from the Sagehen Creek Field Station collection or Museum of Vertebrate Zoology teaching collection — e.g., lazuli bunting, western bluebird, mountain bluebird, flycatchers, Stellar's jay, junco, robin, sapsucker
  • Sample field notes.

Time: 50 minutes


  1. Ask students what a bird is — what makes a bird a bird? They will likely say that birds fly, have feathers, have a beak, etc.

  2. But all of these characteristics are present in other animals as well (e.g., dinosaurs, bats, insects). The most distinguishing feature of birds is their syrinx — their "voice box." Think about how many birds sing. The syrinx produces the vocalizations that we associate with birds.

  3. How can you tell different kinds of birds apart?

  4. Show four pairs of specimens to the students and ask them how to tell them apart.

    1. Steller's Jay vs. mountain bluebird — size, crest, etc.
    2. Mountain bluebird vs. western bluebird — same shape and size, different color
    3. Olive-sided flycatcher vs. western wood-pewee — very subtle differences in color, but different sizes
    4. Dusky flycatcher vs. Hammond's flycatcher — virtually identical, but have different vocalizations, habitats, and geographic ranges

  5. Cell phone game:

    1. Instruct students in proper handling of specimens
    2. Have students break into two groups
    3. Give one group the western bluebird and give the other group a lazuli bunting, but don't let them see each other's bird (give each group a ruler)
    4. Select one (talkative) student in each group to talk to one student in the other group. Have the students pretend that they are birdwatching in different places and have them pretend to talk via their cell phones to see if they are observing the same species. The group quietly aids the talker in describing the bird.

      This is the time to help the students to figure out which features are most important in telling species apart, and to begin to figure out how to describe birds.

  6. Field notes activity: When observing nature, it is extremely helpful to make careful descriptions and drawings while you are observing. These will allow you to identify the animal or plant later and will allow others to profit from your observations.

    1. Show examples of field notes. For example:

      • Charles Camp's notes from MVZ survey of Yosemite — drawing of wolverine — last one seen in California until recently found again at Sagehen.
      • Robert Stebbins' species accounts of amphibians — show field guide that resulted from these.
      • Your own current notes — describe how useful they are to your research.

    2. Students work in four groups.

    3. Demonstrate how to describe a bird (start at the bill and work back), showing them how to measure the tail, bill, etc. using a ruler.

    4. Each group is assigned a mystery bird (use study skins of local species — e.g., Williamson's sapsucker, dark-eyed junco, robin) to observe and describe. The bird is shielded from view from the other groups. Each group observes and measures their specimen and writes a careful written description of the bird. As you help the students, ask them, "Could you draw your bird based on what you have written here?"

    5. Each group then exchanges their notes with another group. Each group spends a few minutes drawing the bird based on the description of the other group. At the front of the class, there is a "lineup" of local species. This includes each of the specimens the class has examined, similar species (e.g., varied thrush that is similar to the robin), and other local species. Groups then attempt to pick out the bird that they have drawn from the specimens presented.