Bird-Spotting Science: Predicting a Bird’s Lifestyle Based on its Feet
Have you ever wondered how animals can survive in all sorts of extreme environments, from a polar bear that’s out and about when it’s -40°F and a desert iguana finding food as the temperature rises to 110°F, to a deep sea anglerfish living thousands of feet down in the sea? How do they do it? The answer is adaptations! Their bodies have special features that allow them to live in those environments. In this activity, you’ll investigate what the adaptations of birds in your area tell you about those birds’ lifestyles. Get ready to do some bird watching!
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.
If you were an animal with a thick layer of fat under your skin and a heavy coat of fur, like a polar bear, would you live in a tropical forest? No way! You’d be way too hot! But if you lived in the cold of the Arctic, near the North Pole, these adaptations would be necessary to keep you warm. All creatures have adaptations. Some adaptations help animals deal with the climate, like the polar bear example above. Other adaptations help animals move better in their environment, blend in with their surroundings so they don’t get eaten by predators, or can successfully get dinner.
Birds are animals with a lot of specific and useful adaptations. One major adaptation is the shape of their feet. Have you ever looked at a bird’s feet and noticed how different they are from other types of birds’ feet? For example, chickens and ducks are both birds, but they have very differently shaped feet. Chicken feet have relatively long skinny toes with strong, sharp nails, while ducks have webbed feet. Chickens’ feet allow them to scratch at the ground and find insects and seeds to eat, while ducks’ feet help them paddle in the water.
Extra: In this activity, you looked at the general lifestyle of a bird, but there are many aspects that go into a bird’s lifestyle, such as where they nest, where they roost, and how they get food. Pick one of these aspects and investigate again how well the bird’s foot type is as an indicator of that part of its lifestyle. How good is a bird’s foot type at, for example, predicting how it gets its food?
Extra: Try this activity again but this time compare the birds’ beaks instead of their feet. How well can a bird’s beak be used to predict their lifestyle, and/or specifically what they eat? Do birds with different types of beaks eat different things?
Extra: Pick two diverse habitats, like the beach and a forest, and investigate the species of birds in those areas. Do birds in the same habitat have similar types of feet? How about birds in different habitats?
Observations and Results
Were you able to use the type of foot that each species of bird has to usually accurately predict that bird’s lifestyle?
Chickens’ feet are adapted to allow them to scratch at the ground and find insects and seeds to eat, while ducks’ feet are adapted to help them paddle in the water. In this activity you should have seen that a bird’s feet are usually a good indicator of the type of lifestyle it leads. For example, the common House sparrow (Passer domesticus) has perching-type feet, and it indeed spends a lot of time perching on trees, other plants, and structures in different environments (from parks, gardens, farms, woodlands, deserts, rural and urban areas, and more). Similarly, lovebirds (of the genus Agapornis), African greys (Psittacus erithacus), cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus), and other parrots you might find in pet stores and aviaries have climbing feet, and not only do they frequently climb in captivity, but in the wild they also spend much time doing this, often climbing on, and nesting within, trees in wooded areas. However, the type of feet a bird has might not reflect every aspect of its lifestyle. For example, many birds have climbing- or perching-type feet, but mostly forage on the ground. This includes mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), the American Robin (Tardus migratorius), frequently parrots, and many other bird species.
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Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
Science Buddies |
Animals, biology, adaptations
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