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BACKYARD BIRDING - Research Project

By Stan Hitomi

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on activity
  • Group / cooperative learning
  • Community outreach / off-site activity
  • Skill development

Target Audience:

  • Biology
  • Life Science
  • Advanced / AP Biology


"Backyard Birding" is a project-based lesson, which seeks to have students develop research skills through the design and development of research projects. Students take ownership of the projects through construction of their own bird feeders in the classroom, maintaining a journal, designing a research project, and communicating findings in a poster presentation.


Teachers have used bird feeders extensively to have students study the natural history and behavior of birds. This project is unique in that students construct their own professional-quality feeders in the classroom. The intent is to maximize student ownership of the project, and provide for consistency in the equipment and resources available for students to build their own bird feeders. The completed feeders then provide a foundation for the development of projects which can integrate the study of a broad range of topics.

The project was developed in partnership between the woodshop instructor and our biology teachers. The biology teachers wanted students to build quality feeders for use in projects, while the woodshop teacher wanted the students to work with the basic skills of wood working. The key piece in this project is the "wooden jig" or platform (see figure 1)which enables students to saw wood at their lab tables, or even in a lecture hall (as we did with 75 students at a time at our school). The jigs can be assembled by teachers, parents, or woodshop students. Building the jigs can be the beginning of the community and parent involvement which is integral in this lesson.

The goals of the projects and the scope of the lesson can vary widely with the needs of the students, course, and instructor. The variation can range from observation journals to complete research projects (as we do in our biology course). Teachers need to develop the goals and objectives they hope to achieve prior to implementing the project. Teacher background and preparation will vary widely, depending upon the goals and objectives selected. Teacher preparation will include contacting local resources including pet shops, nature stores, community museums, colleges & universities, regional parks, and the local chapter of the Audubon Society. Any of these may provide useful publications and potential resources for guest speakers and mentors.

The instructor should develop a suitable timeline for the project, and all necessary materials including project proposal forms, bird identification sheets, journal format, and assessment materials. The time allotment for this project should be a minimum of two months, and may cover the entire year depending upon the nature of the projects. The amount of time will also vary depending upon the number and kinds of concepts the teacher wishes to integrate into the lesson/project. Each concept should be taught in a sequence which will allow for a "spiral" development of knowledge and skill which ultimately enables the students to complete the projects.

In a time of 30-second sound bites, and on-demand answers (with the click of a mouse) Backyard Birding can bring back the skills of careful observation and patience. The birds will not always come when the students want them to, and they will not always do what they want them to do. The initial response from students will be frustration, but the final outcome will be satisfaction and appreciation. The experience is a MUST for all students.


Materials: (class of 32 working in pairs to make 1 feeder per person)

  • backsaws (16)

  • claw hammers (16)

  • wooden jigs (16)

  • sandpaper

  • 3 penny nails (3 lb.)

  • white glue

  • notebook/journal

  • shop vacuum (optional)

  • local field guides (optional)

  • #2 grade pine - 1" x 6" x 10ft (8) will give each student 30 inches of board

     (tools may be purchased or borrowed from shop teachers)

In our community, and in many others across the country, birds represent one of the most abundant and readily available sources of animals for behavioral study. Bird watching and feeding rank among the leading hobbies in America. This lesson combines the availability of birds, as well as the potential for bird study as a lifelong activity, to provide students with experiences in experimental design, data collection & analysis, and communication of findings. The lesson is product-based, with the number and scope of the products dependent upon the level of students and needs of the instructor. Our students are required to construct their own feeder, submit a written journal, and prepare & present a group poster board presentation of results.

The lesson has been developed to span the school year, but can be modified to suit a variety of school calendars and course objectives. The experiences which can be gained are suitable for students from Special Education to Honors/AP. The key ingredient is that students take ownership of the projects and experience the development of tangible products.
The following outline represents the four-step procedure developed by our biology teachers at Monte Vista High School, Danville, CA.

Phase I - Constructing a bird feeder (3 - 4 class periods)

Phase I of the project begins during the second week of the school year. This phase should be preceded by a short discussion on "What Is A Bird ?" Students should become familiar with some of the characteristics and behaviors of birds which should be taken into consideration when designing their feeders. This activity can follow an assignment to observe birds at home, or a walk around campus (even the most urban of campuses will have birds). We generally allow 3 days to complete the feeder, including discussion of possible designs and supplemental materials (have students use caution if painting their feeders, natural oils are the best). We begin the construction of the feeders with a brief introduction to working with wood, and to safety considerations.

Students are provided a basic design (see figure 2) for the less experienced students, but are encouraged to be creative. Students are asked to look at professionally-made feeders and evaluate their designs. We also advise students to consider the types of birds, size and behavior, they hope to attract when designing their feeders. Diagrams of feeder types are available through the Nature Company and Wild Birds Unlimited. Additional information on feeders can be obtained from magazines such as Sunset and Better Homes and Gardens, books, and online resources.

Phase II - Observation, Journal Writing, and Questioning (4 - 6 weeks)

Time is critical in this phase. We begin in early Fall to catch the fall migration patterns. Instruction is provided on the topics of animal behavior and bird identification. Much of the information is generated through hikes around our campus and an adjoining park. This could also be accomplished through slides, videotape, the Internet, and backyard observations. During this time students develop journal taking and observational skills. Students are asked to identify bird behaviors and the variables which may affect them. Backyard observations should be done at least twice a week.

During this phase, the content of our curriculum focus is "ecosystem concepts". Many of these concepts are integrated into our discussions of what the students are seeing and are writing in their journals. We begin to have the students ask questions about inter- and intra-species behavior, and about habitats and niches.

This phase also allows for students to troubleshoot their bird feeders. Adjustments may need to be made in terms of feeder height, location, predator access (cats & dogs), squirrels, and weather. At this time we organize our students into their research groups of four students each. This allows the students to brainstorm feeder modifications and adjustments, as well as compare progress in attracting birds. Teachers should keep in mind that birds are visual, and must see the food in order to be attracted.

Phase III - Developing research questions and experimental designs

The time required to complete this phase will be highly variable. During this phase, teachers should provide instruction on the "Research Model", including hypothesis, independent & dependent variables, control, experimental design, data, and analysis. Many teachers will elect to teach the Research Model as a separate unit. In our program, it is presented at this time, then integrated with the current content area over a period of time. We continue instruction according to our curriculum schedule while "linking" back to the projects when appropriate. We cover each step of the research model individually through laboratory experiences, making links each time to their projects.

During the initial days of this phase students work in their groups to develop a research question and design an experiment (see Classroom Science for the Birds, The American Biology Teacher, March 1990). Groups work independently throughout this phase and are periodically allowed class time to meet, discuss, and provide updates on their projects. Students are encouraged to overcome design flaws in their experiments, and insure that each component in the research model is properly addressed as it is revisited during the course of instruction.

Phase IV - Analysis of data / Preparation & presentation of findings

We hold our project presentations early in May, following instruction in data analysis and communication of findings. Each group is required to construct a poster board for presentation of results. Through graphs, artwork, narrative, and photographs, the poster board must deliver the message of their findings. This phase, as much as any of the others, demonstrates the cooperative nature of the projects. Artistic ability, craftsmanship, writing skills, and speech will all be required to complete a successful presentation. We find that preparation for the presentation appeals to a wide diversity of student interests and abilities.

The presentations are made as a group before the class and a scoring panel composed of teachers and community volunteers. Five minutes is allocated for presentation of results and ten minutes is left open for questions from the scoring panel and audience. The panel is provided a prepared list of questions to supplement those which they might generate on their own throughout the presentation.

Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Our assessment is based upon a project portfolio, which each student must submit, and the poster board presentation. Both of these are graded upon a rubric (see Effective Rubric Design, The Science Teacher, May 1995). Presentations usually take 3 class periods.

Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

Much of the success of this lesson comes from extending the work outside the boundaries of the school. Many of our resources for this project come from the community. We have worked with local businesses such as Wild Birds Unlimited and The Nature Company for the students to acquire seed and information. The Audubon Society, Wild Birds Unlimited, and the University of California have all provided speakers for evening lectures, to which the public is invited. This past year we have developed a partnership with U.C. Berkeley to have their staff mentor our students in research, and the development of a Web Site to report their information. Students, parents, and the community are joining forces this spring to "Birdscape" a garden on campus to attract birds. Additional extensions include student involvement in Audubon bird counts and recovery programs for injured birds. This year one of our English teachers extended our concept by integrating the construction of bat boxes as an exercise in writing instructions, and the role of bats in literature. He sought the advice of the industrial arts and science departments in making his lesson a truly integrated project. Stan Hitomi

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