Unit 1: Lesson A

Atlantic Puffin
Atlantic Puffin

Seabird Adaptations

Lesson A: Fat, Feathers, and Beaks

Grades: K-6

Subject Areas: Science

Skills: scientific method, data collection, small motor skills

Standards met: tbd

Prep: 1 hour
Lesson: 60-90 minutes

Location: classroom

Materials: whiteboard or chart paper and pens, dress up kit (down vest, raincoat, fishing pole, flippers,  goggles, water bottle, hairbrush, hair conditioner, in tote bag), handful of down feathers, blubber mitts (ziplock bags-quart size, vegetable shortening, duct tape), large bowl, ice, bird beak experiment materials (various tools including tweezers, salad tongs, pliers, chopsticks, large tray, mix of beads).

Goal: Students will understand that seabirds are amazingly well adapted to the marine environment in which they live.

1. Participate in class "mapping" of a seabird.
2. Ask a scientific question, form hypothesis, conduct experiment and find result.

Summary: Students will "map out" a seabird's adaptations as a class, observe what is needed if a person wanted to be as well adapted and live in the ocean environment with the puffins, and perform 2 experiments - one on the role of fat and feathers as insulation, and one showing that beak shape and size affect prey selection in birds.

Vocabulary: Adaptations, uropygial gland, nictitating membrane, down feathers, variable, hypothesis.

The Lesson:


1. Map the bird. Begin by writing the question "What do puffins have to help them survive in their environment?" on the board. Before answering that question, underline environment and guide the students to describe the ocean habitat where puffins spend a majority of their lives. COLD, WET and SALTY are the key words to describe this place. Sketch a puffin quickly on the board (easily eliciting amazed oohs and ahs from the audience) which you can label with all the adaptations it possesses for surviving in that cold, wet, salty environment.

You can make magnet labels or simply write the physical feature and its purpose on the board. This bird is indeed superbly endowed with adaptations to survive in a cold, wet, salty environment. As are other seabirds, including penguins which live at the other end of the earth in a similar habitat.

Map The Bird
Example of students "Mapping the bird" in a classroom exercise

2. Adapt a kid. Select a volunteer from the audience and bring them up front, explaining that we'd like to send Becky or James out to live in the ocean with puffins for a few years.  Obviously they aren't as well adapted as the puffin to life out there, but people, being resourceful and adaptable, possessing big brains and hands with thumbs, can create the things they need to survive in places they are not adapted to live. Outfit the volunteer bit by bit, explaining how each component relates to a puffin's adaptation. (down vest = puffin's down; raincoat = waterproof contour feathers; flippers = webbed feet; goggles = protective nictitating membrane; fishing pole = beak; water bottle = response to lack of salt gland; hair brush = beak for preening; conditioner = uropygial gland; tote bag = alternative way to carry many fish when lacking spines in mouth). Even with all these things, too many to carry, they are not as well adapted to life at sea as the puffin is. The tiny puffin, only 10 inches tall, weighing as much as a can of soda, can catch 62 fish, dive >100 feet, drink saltwater, and live for years on the ocean without touching land. A marvel of evolution!  

Child in Raincoat with Flippers
Child adapting to surroundings as a Puffin might do. Photo by Susan Schubel


1. Blubber Mitt Experiment. For this you will need to make a pair of "Blubber Mitts". Scientists always begin a study with a question, and ours is, "does fat keep you warm?" Using 2 plastic mitts, identical except for a layer of fat insulating one of them, let students dip their mitt-clad hands into a tiny ocean (bowl) of icy water for 30 seconds while pondering the question, "Is one hand warmer than the other?" Point out the single variable in the experiment and ask students not to reveal their answer until all have had a turn. 

Children Doing Mitten Experiment
Student experiencing the blubber mitt experience. Photo by Susan Schubel



2. Lightweight insulation. 
Fat is a great insulator, and also stores energy for hard times, but it is heavy. Birds that fly are adapted to be lightweight, and can't regularly pack on the pounds the way a whale, seal, or even a penguin can. Downy feathers are the answer to this conundrum, being superiorly warm and light. Pass around a handful of down, with the receivers of the puff having hands extended and eyes closed. Passers should be very gentle and stealthy for best effect - all will be amazed that the downy puff  will not even be perceived by touch as it is soooo light!


Child Receiving Downy Feathers
Passing the down puff. Photo by Laurie Brown

Child Holding Downy Feathers
Amazingly Light! Photo by Laurie Brown






3. Bird Beaks. Birds have such a wide variety of sizes and shapes of beaks. And yet all these birds, with long narrow bills, short hooked bills, or tiny pointed beaks, need to build nests, capture food, preen feathers, defend themselves, communicate, and care for their young. Show examples of photos of different birds with vastly different beaks. Instead of using beaks like tools, we'll use tools like beaks, using a variety of tools that are reminiscent of beaks to capture food. A plastic tray filled with a mix of beads is provided; each student takes a paper cup (bird belly) and a tool and on the "go" command begins to capture the tiny silver beads from the mix. After 2 minutes a "stop" command ceases the collecting and the numbers of beads for each tool type is tallied on a chart. Answer the question, "Which beak tool is best for catching small silver beads?" with the data, and relate it conceptually to real birds with real beaks. 

Sue Schubel Showing Photos Of Different Beaks
Showing photos of different beaks. Photo by Susan Meadows

Children Using Tools Like Beaks
Capturing prey (beads) with different beak tools. Photo by Susan Meadows

Wrap Up: Puffins are supremely well adapted to live in a cold, wet, salty ocean environment. Such a bird would not be found in desert or rainforest. The environment has shaped this creature to survive perfectly where it evolved.

Assessment: Give students a blank "map" of a puffin to label with adaptations. Ask students to list the steps for scientific method.

Diving Deeper: 

  • Choose another animal and make an adaptations map for it.
  • Do a feeder study to see if birds with different beaks choose different seeds.
Copyright  2015 National Audubon Society, Inc