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!
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.
- Unless you’re going to a zoo or pet store, you’ll want a bird field guide book to identify birds in your area. Alternatively, you could use online resources to identify the birds you see.
- A place to observe birds. This could be your backyard (especially if you have a bird feeder or birdbath), a park, a field, a forest, a beach, an aviary at a zoo, a pet store, or a farm that has different types of birds.
- Binoculars. Inexpensive ones are fine. These are only needed if you will be watching birds from a distance.
- Sheet of paper
- Pen or pencil
- Get ready to do some bird watching. Unless you’re going to a zoo or pet store, have a local bird field guide book ready, or have access to an online resource, so you can identify local birds. A good online resource you could use is All About Birds.
- Bring a sheet of paper, a pen or pencil, and a bird field guide book (or access to an online resource) to one of the bird-observation places you decided on. If needed, also bring binoculars. Observe the birds there. (Be sure to have an adult accompany you.) What kind of birds do you see?
- Identify the different species of birds you see. (If you are at a zoo, pet store, or other place where the species of birds are labeled or simple to identify, this will be easy.) Use a field guide book or online resource to do this.
- What species of birds do you see? On your sheet of paper, write their names down.
- Look at the feet of each species of bird. What type of feet do they have? Write down one of the following seven types of feet for each species:
- Climbing: Two toes in front, two toes in back
- Swimming: Webbed feet
- Running: Strong-legged with two or three thick toes, all facing forward
- Perching: Three toes in front, one toe in back
- Grasping: Claw-like feet with curved talons
- Scratching: Four toes, all with strong nails for digging into the ground
- Wading: Long, thin legs and toes
- Tip: If it is difficult to clearly see any bird’s feet, you could look for pictures of the bird that more clearly show their feet (such as in a field guide book or in pictures online).
- Try to make observations for at least 5 species of bird. The more you observe, the better your results should be!
- Based only on the type of feet each bird has, predict what kind of lifestyle you think that type of bird has. In other words, where do you think it spends most of its time? Is it usually perched in a tree, climbing trees, on the ground, or swimming in the water?
- Do some research on each species of bird to find out where it actually spends its time. To do this, you could use a bird field guide book or online resources. (Again, you could use the All About Birds website or other resources listed in the “More to explore” section on the next page.) You’ll want to look into where each bird nests, roosts (or sleeps), and forages (or gets food). Where does each bird spend most of its time?
- Based on your results, how accurate an indicator was each bird’s foot type for the kind of lifestyle it usually leads?
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.
Ask an Expert
- All About Birds, from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Bird Feet, from Fernbank Science Center
- Can You Predict a Bird's Lifestyle Based on Its Feet?, from Science Buddies