With the the spring bird migration in the near future, we’ve been studying and observing the birds in our back yard. One of the observations that Aikman made was that several of the birds in our back yard have different beaks. This lead to us exploring the purpose behind why birds have different beaks.
In order to understand why there are different beaks, we had to explore what birds eat. We looked at seven different types of food sources: (clockwise, from top left) grass, nectar, worms, seeds, fish, meat, and embedded insects in wood.
Materials needed for the food sources:
- 7-8 matching containers
- sunflower seeds
- craft styrofoam block – cut to be slightly smaller than the container
- rice – painted or dyed a bright color
- dirt or sand
- gummy worms
- Swedish fish or Juju fish candy
Materials needed for the types of beaks:
In addition,we discussed how the different beaks act as different tools, in order to obtain its food. Most of the tools are common items you can find around most houses.
- cheater chopsticks – you can purchase one like these dino cheater chopsticks or you can use a pair of chopsticks with paper secured with a rubberband.
- slotted spoon
- hand strainer
The goal of the experiment is to match the type of beak to its food source. I laid out the 7 food sources, and the let Aikman attempt to remove the food source with each beak type. The tool that did the best job would be the one that was matched to that food source. I then would share with him what type of bird used that type of beak. A small stack of pictures and a few bird field guides were handy for him to explore other birds with similar characteristics.
Here’s how each food source matches up with the beak types and the birds that correspond to them.
Food source #1: nectar
For the nectar food source, I used water and food coloring to make it look like nectar. Aikman discovered that of all of the tools, the only one that could be used to obtain the nectar is the straw. The hummingbird’s beak is just like a straw, collecting nectar from flowers.
Food source #2: seeds
The food source is simple – a container of seeds. We used sunflower seeds, but you could use safflower seeds, peanuts, or cracked corn. Birds who eat seeds have “cracker” type beaks; they must have short, strong, pointy beaks to break open the shells. Aikman also pointed out that the scissors could cut the seed, but it would not be very effective. Therefore, the best tool is the wrench. Sparrows, finches, and cardinals are all examples of birds that eat seeds.
Food source #3: worms and insects underground
To demonstrate this food source, I placed a gummy worm in a container of sand. Soil would also work well, but due to the cold weather and snow, I did not want to use it. For insects and worms that live in the ground, the best instrument to remove the worm is the chopsticks. Most of the other tools can be used to pick it up, but none are as effective as the chopsticks. Aikman pointed out that the tweezers could be used, but they would not be as good as the chopsticks, since they would not reach far down into the soil. The robin, thrush, blackbird, and warbler have probe-type beaks.
Food source #4: embedded insects
Some insects live inside the bark of trees. This part of the experiment explores how to remove those “insects” from inside of a tree. To create the food source, paint a few grains of rice a bright color. Then using the tweezers, press a grain into the styrofoam. When the child explores this container, he will see that the only way to remove the small little insects is by using the tweezers. Sapsuckers, woodpeckers, and chickadees eat insects embedded in tree bark.
Food source #5: fish
For the food source, I place a few juju fish in a container of water. This container caused the most discussion of all of the food source containers. Most of the tools could have been used to remove the fish; however, there was only one that worked the best – the slotted spoon. Pelicans and herons have scooping type beaks that allow the food to be caught, but allows for the water to be removed.
Food source #6: grass or other small floating food particles in water
For this food source, I placed a few pieces of grass and clover in water. The only tool that can easily remove the grass is the strainer. Ducks and flamingos both have a comb-like arrangement, called lamellae, in their bill that allows them to strain out particles from the water.
Food source #7: meat and flesh
For this final portion of the experiment, the food source is meat. To demonstrate in a kid-friendly way that the food can be torn like it would by a beak, we placed marshmallows in the container. We used scissors to show that the marshmallows could easily be torn by the scissors.